5.1 General context
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Young people’s participation
The participation of young people in (political) decisions and processes that affect them is a basic principle of youth work, which is actively involved in helping to shape their lives. If adults give up some of their influence, children and young people can increasingly determine the shape of their own lives (Austrian National Youth Council (Bundesjugendvertretung, BJV). Participation enables people to take part in social activities at all levels and is an opportunity for young people to shape political processes and thus society (ARGE Partizipation: jugendbeteiligung.at). A vital democracy needs committed people who want to participate and have a say as well as framework conditions that enable this commitment. This is especially true for young people, who should be able to have the best possible say and shape and participate in decisions that affect the world in which they live. Therefore, the Austrian Youth Strategy (Österreichische Jugendstrategie) includes the action field of participation, and the Department for Families and Youth at the Federal Chancellery is active in the National Working Group on Youth Dialogue and Youth Participation and supports the implementation of the EU Youth Dialogue and the European Youth Goals as well as many other initiatives.
Standards for Public Participation
The 'Standards of Public Participation' (Standards der Öffentlichkeitsbeteiligung) were adopted by the Austrian Council of Ministers in 2008 and recommended to be applied by the federal administration.
Where policies, plans, programmes, and legal instruments are prepared, the public is increasingly offered an opportunity to participate. Public, politics and administration can benefit optimally from such involvement where the participation of the public is exercised at a high quality. This can be ensured by the application of standards aimed at maximising the effectiveness and efficiency of public participation. The present Standards of Public Participation are to help the administrative staff of the federal government in the concrete conduct of high-quality participation processes. They are a contribution to good governance in Austria. The Standards of Public Participation were prepared by an inter-ministerial working group with the participation of legally established representations of interest, NGOs and external experts as part of a project commissioned by the Austrian Federal Chancellery and the former Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management.
As a Federal State (Article 2 Federal Constitutional Law, Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz), Austria is composed of nine sovereign provinces (Bundesländer): Burgenland, Carinthia (Kärnten), Lower Austria (Niederösterreich), Upper Austria (Oberösterreich), Salzburg, Styria (Steiermark), Tyrol (Tirol), Vorarlberg, and Vienna (Wien). The provinces maintain provincial parliaments with select legislative powers, have broad executive powers, but no separate court system. Compared with other Federal States (e.g. Switzerland, Germany), the Austrian system is rather centralised with the Federal State holding comparatively many competencies.
In Austria, a system of separation of the three powers has been established. History has proven that unlimited power in the hands of one person or group often lead to the suppression of other groups. In a democracy, the separation of powers is to prevent abuse of power and to safeguard freedom for all. Checks and balances (rights of mutual control and influence) make sure that the three powers (legislation, executive, judiciary) interact in an equitable and balanced way. The separation of powers is an essential element of the Rule of Law, and is enshrined in the Federal Constitution (Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz).
The Federal System
The Republic of Austria is a Federal State composed of nine autonomous federal provinces. Its federal nature is one of the basic principles laid down in the Constitution and can thus only be changed by referendum. Unlike centralist forms of organisation, the legislative and executive powers are shared by the federal and provincial governments. Provincial laws and laws pertaining to communities are passed by the provincial diets, and the administration of the provinces lies in the hands of the provincial governments. The citizens of a province may also influence provincial legislation through instruments of direct democracy. The federal system in Austria is characterised by the following elements:
- The federal state and the provinces have legislative bodies of their own
- They have executive organs of their own
- The federal provinces participate in certain administrative activities of the federal state (‘indirect administration of federal law by provincial administrative authorities’)
- The federal state and the provinces have their own systems of financial management, i.e. budgets of their own, and they may levy taxes and rates in their own right. However, only the federal government can levy relevant taxes such as the income tax, value-added tax etc., and the federal provinces receive funds from the federal government’s tax revenue under the system of revenue sharing. The revenue-sharing plan covers only a few years and is re-negotiated at regular intervals.
In concrete terms, the respective competencies of the federal state and the provinces (the federal states) are laid down in the competence articles of the Federal Constitutional Law Artikel 10-15 Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz). They define
- which matters are reserved to the federal level,
- for which matters the federal level lays down the principles, leaving the decision on implementing acts to the provinces,
- where the federal level holds the legislative power and the provinces have executive powers and
- in respect of what matters the legislative and executive power is reserved to the provinces (fallback clause for all not explicitly named subjects).
The provinces are also involved in federal legislation through the Federal Council and share the executive power of the federal level within the scope of the indirect administration of federal law by provincial administrative authorities. In addition, the provinces may conclude treaties under international law with other states or parts thereof. Under Art. 23d of the Federal Constitutional Law (Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz), the federal provinces also hold certain rights of participation in projects within the framework of the European Union. They have to be informed on all EU projects. If all provinces agree in their position regarding an EU project affecting a matter that falls within their legislative competence, their joint position is binding.
The federal provinces have the right to establish ombudsman’s offices and courts of an audit of their own. In principle, however, control instruments such as the Ombudsman’s Office and the Court of Audit are seen as joint organs of the federal and provincial levels.
The Federal Parliament
The Parliament is the very centre of democracy. It represents the interests of the greatest possible number of citizens. The Federal Parliament is bicameral. It comprises the National Council (Nationalrat), which is determined by the general electorate, and the Federal Council (Bundesrat), which is staffed by the Länder.
Elections to the National Council take place based on the principles of proportional representation, a closed list system, and preferential votes. Every citizen can cast one vote for a party which represents them in Parliament. In Austria, Parliament has two chambers – the National and Federal Councils. 183 seats are allocated to the individual groups seeking election based on the percentage of votes they win in the election.
The Federal Council has 61 members. Its major responsibility is the representation of the Federal Provinces’ interests in the legislative process at the federal states level. This is why it is also referred to as the Chamber of Provinces. Its members are delegated by the Provincial Diets of the nine Federal Provinces.
The two legislative bodies – the National and Federal Councils – form separate entities. Their Members jointly form a third parliamentary body, the Federal Assembly.
Austria is a representative (or parliamentary) democracy. This means that Members of Parliament pass laws as representatives of the voters. Unlike the situation in a direct democracy, political decisions are not entrusted to the people themselves but to parliament. Free elections are the hallmark of democracy. Parliaments, the Federal Government, the Federal Chancellor, the Federal President – all political institutions envisaged by the Federal Constitution are directly or indirectly derived from the outcome of elections.
In Austria, elections are held for five different purposes: to determine the membership of the National Council (every five years), the Provincial Councils (every five or six years at different times for each province), Municipal Councils and the European Parliament, and to directly elect the Federal President (every six years).
The Länder have their own provincial electoral authorities and electoral legislation. For nation-wide elections, specific federal laws are in force. Basic principles and provisions governing elections on all political levels - general, free, secret, and equal suffrage, the direct and personal right to vote - are laid down in the Federal Constitution.
Elections take place based on the principles of proportional representation, a closed list system, and preferential votes. Each party draws up a list of candidates, and voters cast their ballots for one of the parties and thus for the persons on that party’s slate. Before the election, the parties that stand for election present their ‘slates’ to the election authority. The more votes are cast for a political party, the more persons on that slate are voted into office. In recent decades, various elements of the ad personam election system have been introduced into elections by party list – for instance by allowing voters to express their preference for a particular person on their elected party slate. However, only the elections for Federal President is held as an election ad personam, with voters directly electing a candidate.
In 2007, the voting age in Austria has been lowered to 16 years in order to increase the participation of young people (Wählen mit 16). The passive right to vote (i.e. the right to stand as a candidate) is set at 18. In general, the Austrian citizenship is a pre-condition to enjoy the active and passive rights to vote (exception: in European Elections and Municipal Elections citizens of EU member states also enjoy voting rights). There is no need to apply for registration as all citizens with a permanent residence are kept in a permanent register, maintained by the municipalities. Voting is not compulsory. The vote is usually cast by ballot, postal voting has been enabled as well.