Austria's constitution characterizes the republic as a federation consisting of nine autonomous federal states. Both the federation and all its states have written constitutions defining them to be republican entities governed according to the principles of representative democracy. Aside from the fact that the states of Austria lack an independent judiciary on the one hand and that their autonomy is largely notional on the other hand, Austria's government structure is similar to that of much larger federal republics such as Germany.
Austria's head of state is the Federal President (Bundespräsident), elected by popular vote for a term of six years and limited to two consecutive terms of office. Former president Heinz Fischer was elected for a second term on 25 April 2010. He will be replaced by President-elect Alexander Van der Bellen, who was elected on 4 December 2016. The office of the Federal President is largely ceremonial, although the constitution allows the president to dismiss the cabinet or to dissolve the National Council and call new elections.
The Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) is appointed by the Federal President. Although he is head of government, he has no power to direct other members of the government. Following the Austrian National Council election of 2008 Social Democratic Party leader Werner Faymann was sworn in as Chancellor by President Heinz Fischer on 2 December 2008.
The federal cabinet consists of the Federal Chancellor appointed by the president and a number of ministers appointed by the president on the recommendation of the chancellor. The federal cabinet is answerable to the National Council and can be forced to resign by a motion of no confidence. The current cabinet, made up by the Social Democratic Party and the Austrian People's Party, was sworn in on 2 December 2008.
The Parliament of Austria (Parlament) consists of two chambers. The National Council (Nationalrat) has 183 members, elected for a five-year term by proportional representation. It is the predominant of the legislature's two chambers. To be represented in parliament a party needs to either win at least four percent of votes across the nation or win a seat (Direktmandat) in one of the 43 regional constituencies.
The politically much less significant Federal Council (Bundesrat) currently consists of 62 members, elected by the state legislatures (Landtage). The number and distribution of seats is recalculated after each census. The power of the Federal Council is rather limited, since in most cases it has only got a suspensive veto, which can be overruled by the National Council. However some cases, like laws limiting the competences of the provinces, require the approval of the Federal Council.
The Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung), which is formed by National Council and Federal Council in joint session, is largely a ceremonial institution, its main responsibility being the swearing in of the Federal President. It can also call a referendum on the removal of the president from office or bring the president before the Constitutional Court if it concludes that the president violated the constitution, and is ultimately responsible for declaring war.
Following the accession to the European Union the parliament had to cede some of its power to European Union institutions.
A convention, the Austrian Convention (Österreich Konvent) was established in 2003 to suggest proposals for a reform of the Austrian constitution and central institutions. It presented a report in 2007, with some of its proposals adopted by parliament.
Austria's legal system distinguished between three different instruments of direct democracy: referenda (Volksabstimmungen), popular initiatives (Volksbegehren) and national opinion polls (Volksbefragungen).
A referendum on a bill is to be held if a majority of the National Council's members demand it or by a resolution of the President, which has to be counter-signed by all members of government. Also, substantial changes to the constitution always require a referendum, while changes to parts of the constitution only require a referendum if at least one third of the members of the National Council or if the Federal Council demands it. The result of a referendum is binding and the bill in question is not passed into law if a majority votes against it. Until now there have been two referenda in Austria, the most recent being on its entry into the European Union.
Popular initiatives can start a legislative process: if a popular initiative is signed by at least 100,000 registered voters, the National Council has to consider it. It takes precedence over all other matters on the National Council's agenda. As of 2010, 32 initiatives have taken place since their introduction in 1963.
National opinion polls or consultative referenda are held, unlike referenda, before the National Council passes a law. Its results are not legally binding. As of 2015, there has only been one national opinion poll.
The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, or SPÖ) is a social democratic/center-left political party that was founded in 1888 as the Social Democratic Worker's Party (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, or SDAP), when Victor Adler managed to unite the various opposing factions. The party was reconstituted as the Socialist Party of Austria in 1945 (renamed to the Social Democratic Party of Austria in 1991) after being outlawed in 1934. Between 1970 and 1999, it governed the country either alone or with a junior partner, and all but two of the Presidents of Austria since 1945 have either been members of the SPÖ or nominated by it. Originally having a high following among blue-collar workers, it sought to expand its focus on middle class and white-collar workers in the late 1950s. In the 1990s, it started viewing privatization of nationalised industries more openly, after large losses of state owned enterprises came to light. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the party started advocating a global transaction tax. It finished first in the National Council election of 2008 with 29.3% of the vote. The party is a member of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists.
The People's Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, or ÖVP) was found by leaders of the former Christian Social Party in 1945 as a conservative/center-right party with loose ties to the Catholic Church. Between 1945 and 1970 it provided the Chancellor of Austria and since 1987 it has continuously been in government, its leader Wolfgang Schüssel being Chancellor between 2000 and 2007. It finds support from farmers, large and small business owners, and lay Catholic groups, but also from voters without party affiliation, with strongholds in the rural regions of Austria. In the latest nationwide elections in 2008 it finished second with 26% of the vote, the worst result in the party's history. Since 1991 the party is a member of the European People's Party.
The Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or FPÖ) is a right-wing populist political party that was founded in 1955 as a successor to the Federation of Independents. According to polls, it mainly attracts votes from young people and workers. Their nationalist rhetoric targets Muslims, immigrants and the European Union. The party steadily gained support after Jörg Haider took over leadership of the party in 1986, until it attracted about 27% of the vote in the 1999 elections. After being reduced to 10% in the 2002 elections, they achieved 17.5% in 2008.
The Greens (Die Grünen), a party focusing on environmental and social justice issues as part of the worldwide Green movement, received 10.4% of the vote in 2008. They are particularly strong in the city areas, for example in Vienna, where they received 22% of the votes in the 2004 EU-elections. In Neubau they received 41% of the votes, more than SPÖ and ÖVP combined. The Greens attract left-liberal intellectuals and voters from 18-30. Some insist on characterizing the Greens as leftists because they are perceived to be anti-capitalist and certainly employ anti-corporate rhetoric and less business friendly policies. However, this labeling confuses the differences between the Greens—who place a great deal of faith in local markets and direct democracy—and left-Socialists and Communists who tend to favor centralization and planned economies and economic class issues.
In early April 2005, following severe disputes within the FPÖ, Jörg Haider announced the creation of a new right-wing political party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (Bündnis Zukunft Österreich, or BZÖ). All FPÖ members of government and most FPÖ members of parliament joined the BZÖ. In the 2008 elections they finished ahead of the Greens with 10.7% of the votes. In 2013, they were below the 4%-threshold and did not receive any seats.
The Liberal Forum (Liberales Forum, or LIF), founded on libertarian ideals, split from the FPÖ in February 1993. It received 3.65% of the vote in the 1999 election and thus failed to re-enter the national legislature. After being reduced to under 1% in the 2002 election, they disappeared almost completely from public view, receiving 2.1% of the votes in 2008. In 2013 the LIF made a party alliance with the centre-right liberal NEOS for the legislative election and entered into the National Council. In 2014, the parties merged.
Since World War II, Austria has enjoyed political stability. A Socialist elder statesman, Dr. Karl Renner, organized an Austrian administration in the aftermath of the war, and general elections were held in November 1945. In that election, the conservative People's Party (ÖVP) obtained 50% of the vote (85 seats) in the National Council, the Socialists won 45% (76 seats), and the communists won 5% (4 seats). The ensuing three-party government ruled until 1947, when the communists left the government and the ÖVP led a governing coalition with the socialists that governed until 1966. In that year, the ÖVP won an absolute majority and ruled alone for the next four years. The tables turned in 1970, when the SPÖ became the strongest party for the first time, winning an absolute majority under its charismatic leader Bruno Kreisky in 1971. Between 1971 and 1999, the SPÖ ruled the country either alone or in conjunction with the ÖVP, except from 1983–86, when it governed in coalition with the Freedom Party, until the coalition broke when the right-wing politician Jörg Haider became the leader of the Freedom Party.
After the election of 1999, despite emerging only in third place after the elections, the ÖVP formed a coalition with the right wing-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) in early 2000. The SPÖ, which was the strongest party in the 1999 elections, and the Greens now form the opposition. As a result of the inclusion of the FPÖ on the government, the EU imposed symbolic sanctions on Austria, which were revoked six months later. The USA and Israel, as well as various other countries, also reduced contacts with the Austrian Government. The ÖVP was re-elected, this time with a plurality of votes, in the 2002 elections, and formed another coalition government with the FPÖ, this time largely ignored by other countries.
After major disputes inside the FPÖ between Haider and vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (the so-called Knittelfeld Putsch), the ÖVP broke the coalition in 2002 and called for re-elections. Riess-Passer left the FPÖ, and the former Minister of Social Services, Herbert Haupt, was appointed as new leader. In a brilliant marketing move, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel convinced the then very popular Minister of Finance Karl-Heinz Grasser to change from the FPÖ to the ÖVP.
Not only was the FPÖ publicly blamed for breaking the coalition and had lost Minister Grasser to the ÖVP, their style of government and broken promises also left many of their former voter disillusioned. In the elections, which were held on 24 November 2002, they suffered the biggest loss of votes in Austria's history, going down from 27% to only 10%. Most of these losses went to the ÖVP, which went up from 26% to 42%, the highest value for decades. Both Greens and Social Democrats gained votes, but not enough to form a coalition with only 85 of 183 seats.
Against public opinion, which was in favour of an ÖVP-SPÖ coalition government, Chancellor Schüssel renewed the coalition between the ÖVP and FPÖ.
Despite being exposed to fierce criticism from the opposition parties for failed or highly unfavorable privatization deals, the highest tax rates and unemployment figures since 1945, a questionable fighter jet purchase and repeated accusations that Finance Minister Grasser may have evaded taxes, the government seems to be the most stable in decades as both parties are afraid of losing votes. Recent law changes concerning the police, the national television and radio company, the federal railways and the social security system have led to an increase of the ÖVP's and FPÖ's influence in these bodies.
The Social Democratic Party of Austria emerged as strongest party in the 2006 elections forming a government with the Austrian People's Party, SPÖ party leader Alfred Gusenbauer becoming the new Chancellor.
A snap election in 2008 saw both government parties losing votes, however the coalition between SPÖ and ÖVP was renewed, with Werner Faymann, the new leader of the SPÖ, following Alfred Gusenbauer as Chancellor.
The Social Democratic Party under Alfred Gusenbauer emerged as the winner of Austria's general election in October 2006. After negotiations with the ÖVP were successfully concluded Alfred Gusenbauer and his SPÖ-ÖVP coalition government were sworn in on January 11, 2007 by President Heinz Fischer.
This coalition broke up again in June 2008. Elections in September 2008 further weakened both major parties, Social Democrats and People's Party, but together they still hold more than 50% of the votes with the Social Democrats holding the majority. The Freedom Party and the recently deceased Jörg Haider's new party Alliance for the Future of Austria, both right-wing parties, were strengthened. Due to the surge of the right at the last elections, many speculated that any government coalition would include at least one of the two far-right parties. This idea was put to rest when both the Social Democrats and the People's Party stated that neither of them would work with the Freedom Party or the Alliance for the Future of Austria. Lengthy negotiations led to a renewed "grand coalition" consisting of the Social Democrats and the People's Party.
State-approved, compulsory-membership chambers of labour, commerce and agriculture, as well as by trade unions and lobbyist groups exercise sometimes significant influence on the Federal Government. Decisions of the so-called Austrian Social Partnership (Sozialpartnerschaft), consisting of the trade union and the chambers of commerce, labour and farmers, affect a number of Austrian laws and policies, for example its labour law and labour market policy.
Austrian National Union of Students - ÖH; Austrian Trade Union Federation - ÖGB; Chamber of Labor - AK; Conference of the Presidents of Farmers' Chambers; Economic Chamber of Austria - WKO; Federation of Austrian Industry - VOeI; Roman Catholic Church, including its chief lay organization, Catholic Action.
In 1955 Austria passed a law declaring her "perpetual neutrality", on which Austria based her foreign policy from then on. In the 1990s the meaning of this neutrality was changed with Austria becoming a member of the European Union in 1995 and her participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Since the start of 2009 Austria is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
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