Pelinka upset by parliament reform plans

Political scientist Anton Pelinka has reacted critically to the government’s plan to reduce the parliament.

Werner Faymann’s Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) of Vice Chancellor and Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Spindelegger announced earlier this month that the number of federal parliament delegates would shrink by 18 to 165 after next year’s election. SPÖ whip Josef Cap defended the decision which is widely seen as a populist act carried out to prevent the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) from becoming more popular.

The FPÖ has called for more direct democracy and named Switzerland as an example for a reform of the Austrian political system. The opposition faction also said elections must be held now and not only in 2013 due to the government’s inability in combating the crisis and its ongoing internal arguments.

Cap said it had to be ensured that the opposition’s rights and monitoring power would not wane if their parliamentary delegations were reduced. The SPÖ whip said he was convinced of widespread acclaim for the envisaged reform nevertheless “if the concept is convincing.”

Now one of Austria’s most renowned political scientists has warned from “making politics cheaper by reducing the number of parliamentary members (MPs)”. Pelinka told radio Ö1 today (Thurs) that the idea of lowering the number of MPs and Bundesrat (federal council) members “is worth discussing, but not as part of a budget consolidation package”.

Pelinka said the government was sending “wrong signals” by promising reforms to the electoral and constitutional framework of the country in times of austerity. He warned from a decline of significance of democratic institutions if the reduction was carried out as one of the many measures of the coalition’s 26.5-billion-Euro package of savings and tax increases.

ÖVP whip Karlheinz Kopf said today a “symbolic act” of politicians was “legitimate” in times when citizens were forced to tighten their belts. Experts fear that the reputation of Austria’s lawmakers might not improve because of the planned parliamentary reform. They underlined that the measure would increase the number of voters each MP represented in parliament – which could mean they had to spend even more time on travelling to their constituencies to remain in touch with voters.

The envisaged federal reform measures – which could tempt provincial decision-makers to slash the size of regional parliaments – could lead to a rise of MPs’ amount of work in the various special parliamentary commissions. Kopf told the Kurier today that MPs should employ more assistants – a statement which indicates that the ÖVP could call for higher funding of political parties, one of the most disputed aspects of Austrian politics due to a lack of transparency and fears of fraud through subsidisation by firms close to the state.

Kopf also suggested that MPs must not be part of as many investigative committees as at the moment. He said the overall number of parliamentary commissions must decline as well from the current 40 to ensure a high standard of decision-making proceedings. SPÖ and ÖVP came in the opposition’s firing line for allegedly planning to ignore their rivals’ ideas for a possible parliamentary reform. Kopf justified the decision to present a concept for a reduction of seats today – and said that a maximum number of government ministers should be determined too.

Speaking to Ö1, Pelinka presented more points against the SPÖ-ÖVP administration’s reform plans. The Budapest Central European University lecturer stressed that Austria’s population had risen sharply since 1971 when the federal parliament consisted of 165 delegates. He also made aware of the higher complexity in today’s politics due to MPs’ duty to carefully consider directives and draft bills established by the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission (EC).