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Austrian Federal Reform Stops Before It Starts

Published: 24 April 2018
Author: Patrick Utz
The promise of ‘change’ was key for the Austrian Christian democrats’ landslide victory in last year’s general elections. Recent sub-state elections, however, have perpetuated the influence of incumbent governors – and their power to veto reforms of Austria’s federal system. In light of current electoral dynamics, Patrick Utz analyses the (limited) potential for federal reforms in Austria.
When in October 2017 the Christian democrat ÖVP and their thirty-one-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, won their first federal elections in fifteen years, they did so based on the promise of profound ‘change’. This vaguely defined agenda first materialised when Kurz formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which brought the long-standing ‘Grand Coalition’ between Social democrats (SPÖ) and Christian democrats to an end.

A central element of the new coalition agreement is an administrative reform, which may have far-reaching implications for the country’s federal structure. Unsurprisingly for a state that has been described as a ‘federation without federalism’, the endeavoured reforms will most probably lead to further centralization at the expense of the nine constituent Länder. Rather than the direction of change, the puzzling question about Kurz’ plans is whether they will occur in the first place.

Austria’s peculiar system of cooperative federalism, along with the country’s strong corporative tradition has long been immune to noteworthy changes. In 2005 a constitutional convention that had set out to innovate the state’s federal structure concluded its work unsuccessfully. Since then, attempts to overcome the inefficiencies created by overly complex overlaps of competences between the federation and the Länder have at best resulted in lukewarm compromises.

A new window of opportunity, however, might have opened up for Kurz’ ambitious reform plans. Firstly, finding compromises within the new ÖVP-FPÖ government may be less painstaking than at the time of the Grand Coalition. Following the ÖVP’s recent shift to the right, the ideological gap between the new coalition partners seems to be considerably smaller than the one between the ÖVP and the SPÖ. This is particularly true for some social policies, like education, where the Länder’s stakes are very high.

Secondly, Kurz has side-lined many veto points within his own party. Unlike his predecessors, he has been able to choose a team of ministers without the interference of the ÖVP’s influential sub-organisations, not least those in the Länder. This helps him preclude interventions into federal decision-making on part of the constituent units.

And lastly, Kurz has come to power at a time when the most important federal-corporatist powerhouses are undergoing a generational change. Most prominently, the governor of Austria’s largest Land (Lower Austria) and head of the most powerful ÖVP sub-organisation, Erwin Pröll, retired in 2017 after twenty-five years in office. Pröll was known for continuously intervening in the business of his party at the federal level, and into federal politics more generally. His successor has yet to establish herself in a remotely comparable situation.

These favourable conditions and Kurz’ electoral mandate notwithstanding, recent sub-state elections in four different Länder seem to have reinvigorated the position of the constituent units within Austria’s federal balance of power. In three of the four elections that took place between January and April this year, the incumbent governors were able to increase their vote share. In Lower Austria, where this was not the case, January’s elections still yielded an absolute majority for the incumbent ÖVP.

In short, contrary to the 2017 general elections, voters in this year’s sub-state polls have opted for continuity rather than change. Even where this benefitted Kurz’ fellow party members, resistance against the federal government’s plans for reforms is highly likely. In the Western Land of Tyrol, for instance, the regional wing of the ÖVP recently renewed its coalition with the Greens. This can be interpreted as a clear counter-model to the right-of-centre coalition at the federal level, and their plans to curtail the competences of the Länder.

Voters have sent out very mixed messages with regards to the future of Austria’s federal system. Whether noteworthy reforms will be implemented, crucially depends on whether Kurz and his federal party will be able to overcome the likely resistance of the Länder elites within their own ranks. It is beyond doubt, however, that eventual reforms would result in a federation with even less federalism.