Anger about envisaged parliament reduction

The government is facing friendly fire after revealing plans to slash the parliament’s number of seats.

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and its coalition partner, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), said earlier this month the parliament should feature just 165 delegates instead of the current 183. The reform could come into effect after the next federal elections which are scheduled for autumn 2013. Up to five million Euros a year could be saved a year by restructuring parliament, according to experts – who also warn about a  deteriorating quality in decision-making.

The reform is part of the SPÖ-ÖVP administration’s most recent budget consolidation package which is supposed to help lower the debt ratio from 72.2 to 60 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Now several members of the parliament (MPs) harshly criticised their parties for announcing ambitions to lower the number of seats. ÖVP MP Ferdinand Maier said on Saturday the idea was “populist” and “probably a carnival joke”. He told the Kurier commenting the suggestion made him feel “embarrassed”.

Fellow ÖVP member Erwin Rasinger said he would rather appreciate another wage freeze for politicians if his party and the SPÖ of Chancellor Werner Faymann want to prove their willingness to make substantial sacrifices in getting the public budget in order. SPÖ MP Sonja Ablinger pointed out that the idea to reduce the number of MPs and Bundesrat (federal council) members had not been discussed in any of her party’s committees and bodies.

SPÖ whip Josef Cap said only a few days ago he was convinced that the proposal would receive wide acclaim within the government but also among the parliament’s opposition factions “if the concept is convincing”. Referring to a rising disinterest in politics and widespread disappointment among voters, he said: “The people are demanding such steps.”

Cap said it had to be ensured that the reform would not create complications for the dozens of special investigative commissions formed by representatives of all parties. His faction started an intense campaign for a more efficient and smaller parliament after SPÖ Styria boss Franz Voves said the state could do with just 165 MPs.

Support for Voves came from Lower Austrian ÖVP chief Erwin Pröll. However, Pröll’s call for a reform of the federal president’s role, rights and responsibilities did not find similarly strong acclaim. A poll by OGM showed last month that just 39 per cent of Austrians liked the idea of abolishing the presidential office. Around 49 per cent reject it, according to OGM. Especially supporters of the SPÖ and Greens disagree with Pröll while a majority of Freedom Party (FPÖ) voters back the proposal. OGM spoke with around 800 Austrians.

The federal president’s role is dominated by representative functions. However, the office is also seen as an important counterweight to the parliament since the president can remove the government from power. The president is also the chief commander of the Austrian army. Ex-SPÖ MP Heinz Fischer became president in 2004. He was confirmed in office two years ago. Fischer’s current term will be his last since Austrian law keeps the president from running for a third legislature.

Pröll considered running for the position in 2010 but scrapped such plans after finding out about serious internal frictions in the ÖVP about whether to support a possible campaign. The ÖVP board feared that nominating the political heavyweight – the uncle of ex-ÖVP chairman Josef Pröll – could harm the fragile relation to the SPÖ – and give the right-wing FPÖ an extra boost.