Zero Sum Politics? Austrian Government and Challenges to the Kelsenian Vision of Democracy

Lecture | September 4 | 12-1 p.m. | 201 Moses Hall

 David M. Wineroither, Center for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

 Institute of European Studies

Hans Kelsen expressed his absolute acceptance of democratic rule at a time when most political parties, citizens and colleagues of his either openly rejected parliamentary democracy or embraced democracy as a means to prepare for imperfectly democratic means – in his own country, Austria, as well as in the majority of surrounding countries in Central Europe.
Kelsen demanded political actors to seek for compromise; and to ultimately find rapprochment ‚on center ground‘. Only a party state, he believed, could effectively perform accomodative politics in the long run. Sheer necessity, in other words.
This vision of politics proved overwhelmingly compatible with the type of democracy established in Austria in the aftermath of WWII: power-sharing consociationalism. The few but genuine exceptions include (a) the partial hollowing-out of parliamentary rule through external partisan veto players, (b) a somewhat inflated body of constitutional law, and (c) missing representation of minorities not conforming to the consociational logic of consensus building (ie. ethnic minorities in Carinthia and the Burgenland, selected types of agrarian workers).
In more recent years, tides are turning (even) more decisively against Kelsenian democracy. The Zeitgeist of disaffection for compromise proliferates majoritarian conflict-based forms of decision-making and -selling. The politics of the abruptly terminated right-wing government in Austria (2017-19) wraps up such tendencies: 1. Austria’s polity moves further away from Kelsen’s proposition of a decentralized unitary state. Executive federalism flourishes while competitive federalism arrived at the doorstep. 2. Against Kelsen’s suggestion for inclusive voting rights and proportional electoral formulae, the share of the disenfranchised is increasing. Personalized voting formulae are of inherently majoritarian nature. 3. So are more effective means to exercise direct democracy. 4. In contrast to Kelsen’s emphasis on free and fair competition safeguarded by constitutional provision, governments started to engage in a toxic mix of targeting citizen rights and media freedom.
Intriguingly, conservative former chancellor Sebastian Kurz refused to accept a seat in parliament following a successful motion of no confidence against his government. The Zeitgeist points to anti-establishment sentiment and aversion towards institutionalized collective leadership. Both, however, are indispensable prerequisites to functioning bargaining democracy of any fashion – and to prevent political polarization at the elite and mass level.

David M. Wineroither obtained his PhD in Austrian Politics from the University of Innsbruck where he was Assistant Professor for Comparative Politics. He is a former Austrian Visiting Professor at the University of Alberta. Currently he works as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Social Sciences in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Senior Research Advisor to the Dean of the Faculty for Public Administration at National University for Public Service, Budapest. Specialized in party competition and political leadership he is a member of Horizon2020-sponsored DEMOS project on democratic effects of varieties of populism across Europe. His latest books are „Democracy in Austria“ (co-edited with Guenter Bischof; UNO press and iup 2019) and „Die österreichische Demokratie im Vergleich“ (co-edited with Ludger Helms) (second edition with Nomos in 2017).

David M. Wineroither / Photo Credit: Konrad Adenauer Foundation