ÖVP programme reform planned

A new concept by People’s Party (ÖVP) State Secretary Sebastian Kurz will become part of the party’s programme, it has been announced.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who took over from ex-Finance Minister Josef Pröll as ÖVP chairman in 2011, said yesterday (Weds) that the integration secretary’s democracy paper would be considered “step by step”. Kurz suggested to lower the bureaucratic burdens for people engaged in organising referendums. He expressed the idea shortly after the Freedom Party (FPÖ) linked such a reform to its agreement to the government’s debt brake draft bill. The right-wing opposition party eventually decided not to endorse the coalition’s debt limit law but it kept calling for a removal of the various barriers the organisers of referendums were facing.

ÖVP officials denied that their decision to support the state secretary’s referendum amendment plan had to do with keeping all options for the time after the next general election. Sources close to the ÖVP board claim that Spindelegger is ready to end the partnership with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and form a coalition with Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ instead. The FPÖ is currently neck and neck with the SPÖ for first place while the ÖVP would drop from second to third position were Austrians asked to elect a new parliament now instead of autumn 2013.

Kurz also wants to give voters the right to elect 100 parliament members directly. He said the significance of preference votes must be increased to introduce such a change of electoral rights. At the moment, the parties’ boards have the final say on the listing of electoral candidates. Members who already represent them in parliament have better chances to succeed than young colleagues. Financial aspects matter a lot as well on the campaign trail. Speaking to Die Presse, Kurz rubbished concerns that would-be parliament members (MPs) with higher budgets were prevailing anyway – regardless of a possible reform of Austrian voting regulations. He said that being in touch with voters mattered more than pecuniary aspects.

Kurz told Die Presse that the political system of Austria had to be reformed “because it is damaged”. He admitted that a reform as envisaged in his strategy paper for more direct democracy could be “a challenge” for politicians. Asked to justify his appeal to offer e-voting in referendums, student union votes and other electoral procedures, Kurz said: “I hardly know any young people who participated in referendums – not because they were not interested but it would have meant going to public service offices.”

Spindelegger said yesterday he was optimistic about finding a majority in parliament to turn the state secretary’s democracy reform into reality. The ÖVP leader said now was the time for his party’s competitors to prove that they were serious in their calls for more direct democracy and less complex procedures to improve the reputation of politicians and the political system of the country. Kurz – who is, according to polls, one of the most popular and trusted members of the government – warned: “The political system is about to fall apart.”