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Democratic backslide, or update?

01.06.2016 Josef Lentsch

Austria is in a state of democratic transition. Will progressive forces succeed in making a case to the voters that there is a positive way to reform its institutions? Or will reactionary forces drag it back into a more authoritarian state, that we thought was a thing of the past?

For Austria, democratic transition means discontinuation. The background to the fight between progressives and reactionaries is an exhausted, some say dying political system of sclerotic institutions and petrified parties. For most of the 71 years since the end of World War II, the country has been governed in one way or another by the “Grand Coalition” of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP), in the so-called “Second Republic”.

Today, both parties offer little resistance to right-wing populists – even worse, they provide thankful targets. It seems that all their energy has gone into protecting their vested interests and themselves, and now there is not much left. Their past resistance to reform, that has given way to disorientedness, opportunism and failure in providing responsible leadership, has again and again disappointed the Austrian people. When voters are at the same overwhelmed with change, as with the migration crisis or rising unemployment, and angry at a politics that does not change at all, what you get is the perfect democratic storm.

On 23rd of May 2016, this storm almost blew the right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer into the office of the Austrian Presidency. Only an alliance of the Greens and the Liberals together with some support from social democratic and conservative voters stopped him short of a majority, and helped the Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen to become Austria’s next president. In the end, the difference between the two was only 0,6%. It was the first time in history that neither candidate of ÖVP or SPÖ made it even into the second round.

Far from over

The storm, however, is far from over. With the next national elections at maximum two and a half years away, Hofer’s party FPÖ is currently polling around 33%, in pole position and 8% clear of the Social Democrats in second. Meanwhile, the former “Grand Coalition” polls around 44% – together. The next election will therefore mark the end of the Second Republic: most likely it will be the first time in history social democrats and conservatives will not win a majority of seats. The FPÖ version of the “Third Republic” that should follow is clear: nationalist, populist and xenophobic. What they offer is nothing less than a democratic backslide.

But every crisis also offers the opportunity for genuinely positive transformation. There is another side to the story, and another vision of what Austria can become. In the first round of the Presidential election, the independent centrist candidate Irmgard Griss got 19% of the vote, more than any other independent in the past, and was only marginally beaten to the second round. In 2012, NEOS was founded as a centrist and liberal citizen movement. One year after, NEOS became the first political party to enter parliament at first attempt.

Disrupting dysfunctional politics

This emergence of new centrist and particularly liberal political start-ups, that aim to disrupt dysfunctional political markets, is not specific to Austria. Nowoczesna in Poland, Ciudadanos in Spain or the Liberal Movement in Lithuania are all recent examples of the same phenomenon. The current democratic instability is also a window of opportunity for these start-ups to bring about a profound “update” and a genuine 21st century democracy that is different in culture and structure, more evidence-based, positive and participative. But these start-ups have to grow, and grow fast, if they want to make a difference, as the window will soon close.

Therefore, the crucial question to win the fight against reactionary forces is this: how do we scale the new, and scale it fast?

In order to achieve the required transformational speed, it will not suffice to work top-down or bottom-up, but to pursue both directions. In terms of top-down transformation, this means building strategic alliances well ahead of the next Austrian elections, which may happen any time as early as Autumn 2016. As John F. Kennedy said, “in a time of domestic crisis, men of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.” While manifestos and a fit of values certainly will play a central role in partnering, generosity will as well. NEOS entered parliament 2013 as an electoral platform, formed by NEOS itself together with the Liberal Forum, the Young Liberals and the Online Party. This mode of working is therefore already in the muscle of the organisation.

In terms of bottom-up transformation, to borrow from start-up language, it means quickly learning how to incubate the next generation of NEOS organisations on the regional and communal level, and how to accelerate NEOS on the Bundesländer-level. Fortunately, the wheels for according programmes do not have to be reinvented, as it is possible to transfer and utilise insights from growing start-ups, where incubators and accelerators have been operating successfully for two decades, for political organisations.

Incubating, Accelerating, Empowering

This, however, will still not be enough. It will also be necessary to reach out to non-voters, some of whom NEOS has managed to reactivate with its past campaigns. These citizens have not only lost trust that politics can positively impact their lives, but even more they do not believe that they themselves can achieve positive change for their lives through politics. The third level to the bottom-up approach, in addition to incubating and accelerating the new, therefore has to be Empowerment. Disempowered citizens do not have the knowledge of possible political courses of action – what is more, they do not have the experience that their own actions in the political sphere do make a difference, even if it is only a small one.

Traditionally Empowerment is a political concept of the Left. It should not be. The experience of Powerlessness, of being subjected to overwhelming change with no proper means to influence or the capacity to cope with it, has arrived at the centre not only of the Austrian society, but also of many other European ones. Fighting against the democratic backslide therefore also means: the centre has to empower the citizens. For a liberal party that is in opposition like NEOS, or one that is perhaps not even in parliament, the consequence is clear: not only being more open, but becoming proactively participative and inclusive, involving citizens into their own interests, right where there are. Institutionally, it means reaching out to civil society organisations. To walk the talk, this also means designing the respective organisation and its decision processes in an open and participative way.

A democracy that becomes better at incubating and accelerating the new, and that becomes more participative and inclusive would also be a more resilient one. Such a democracy would be perhaps not immune to the populist challenge, but certainly less susceptible. Such a democratic update would be a great step forward, instead of backward.