Nationalratssitzungssaal Österreichisches Parlament, Foto: Anna Konrath


„Democracy“ is derived from Greek and stands for „rule by the people“. This means that the power to make political decisions rests with the people – and not with an individual. In today’s world, democracies are understood to be states in which

social and political questions are solved in public discussion,

– the holders of state offices (such as the Federal President, government, Members of Parliament) are accountable to all citizens for their decisions and actions,

free elections, in which the holders of important offices (such as the Federal President) or the members of state bodies (such as Parliament) are elected by the citizens, take place at regular intervals.

Free and equal in rights

In a democracy, those who shape politics are visible and known to the public. Decisions that affect the lives of all people living in a state cannot be taken behind closed doors or by a group of persons which remain the same for an indefinite period of time. In a democracy, disputes are dealt with in an open way. Individuals are free to voice criticism, to take an active part in politics and to support new parties or candidates in elections.

The history of democracy began 2500 years ago in what is today Greece. It was originally called „isonomy“, which means order of equality. At that time, of course, only a minority of individuals counted as „equals“, namely only free males. In a modern democracy, by contrast, the ideal of equality is to become a reality for all citizens. Free and equal in rights, they are to have the power to shape politics as well as their communal life in the state, regardless of their property, gender or origin.

The promise of democracy

Both terms – „rule of the people“ and „order of equality“ – reflect very well what is the essence of democracy: Individuals are not dominated by others (for instance by an emperor, a dictator or another state) but (freely) agree among themselves on the rules that are to govern their lives. In so doing, they respect one another as equals: any one of them is free to join in the discussion. In elections, they can both participate in decision-making and stand themselves as candidates.

This is the promise of democracy: We want to live together as free individuals who are equal in rights. Democracy does not promise that all people will have a good life. It does not promise that easy solutions can be found for all problems of coexistence. It does not promise to do away with all problems and create unanimous agreement. Nor does it promise that there will no longer be any form of rule. Nor that all individuals will have a say in determining all rules.

What democracy does promise, however, is that it is possible to settle conflicts peacefully. Democracy ensures that there are strict  and detailed rules on whose basis elected representatives in Parliament can adopt rules that are binding on all. And democracy also ensures that these rules are subject to review and that the persons who adopt them are accountable and subject to scrutiny.

The promise of the citizens

The promise of democracy that all can live together in freedom and enjoy equality of rights must be matched by a promise of the citizens. For democracy to work well, individuals must take an interest in it and must know where and when they can participate. This is why pupils are taught a special discipline called „civic education“ explaining where and when political decisions are taken. Adults are also called upon to keep themselves informed and to participate for instance in elections. This is important because active and committed citizens are the basis of any democracy.

Democracy does not mean that the majority alone decides

Democracy guarantees freedom and equality for all. For this reason, there must be limits to the decision-making powers of the majority in a democracy.

The constitution establishes detailed rules and precise limits to apply in this matter. The rules are to ensure that political discussions can take place in a fair manner, that information is available to everybody and that decision-making is subject to strict procedures. The limits determine what the majority must leave untouched: human rights and the rights of those who are a minority.

What is important is that the different elements of democracy shall control and limit each other. Thus, for instance, the administration is supervised by the government, whose acts are in turn subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The administration, government and parliament are reviewed by the courts. And all together are monitored by independent media and by the public. Thus, even if one or several parties command a majority in parliament and government, they will never be in possession of undivided state power.

Readiness for compromise

For a democracy to function and survive, individuals must be prepared to discuss with one another. Democracy requires mutual respect. Individuals must give to those who disagree with them the opportunity to present their arguments. Democratic discussion therefore needs time. And democratic decisions are therfore often a compromise that takes into account many different opinions.

In the 1920s, many people in Austria rejected democracy. Politics was characterised by harsh conflicts, hostility and violence in the streets. At that time the jurist Hans Kelsen emphasised the need for fair discussion and compromise when he said:

„Majority and minority must be able to come to an understanding if they are to get along with each other. It may be that the social equilibrium’s dependence on the ability to get along with each other is actually higher in democratic reality than it is under a dictatorship, where all that is necessary is to endure the common burden of domination.“

Democratic procedures

For democracy to work well, it requires fair procedures. It is not sufficient that people go out on the streets and voice their claims. It must not happen in a democracy that only those get their way who have more money, are louder or more reckless than the others. This would be a violation of the promise of democracy.

In the course  of history, different democratic ideas and procedures developed in different parts of the world. For democracy as laid out in the Austrian Federal Constitution, the following points are important:

In democratic procedures, individuals are given the right to voice their opinions. These procedures require whoever participates in them to listen to others‘ opinions. Democracy depends on plurality and guarantees plurality. If, again and again, only one and the same opinion has a chance to prevail, we may lose our readiness to recognise the diversity of humans‘ lives.

Democratic procedures enable public discussion and thus offer a chance to understand different positions and suggestions. Democratic procedures also determine who may finally pass a decision that is binding for all.

Democratic procedures can be rerun over and over again. In a democracy, decisions are never final. Democracy depends on decisions being reviewed. We call this „democratic control“. The lifeblood of democracy is the openness for new ideas and the readiness to concede that there will be a new way or a better way next time.

Sites of democracy

Democratic procedures need sites where to take place. There must be rooms which people associate with democracy and where they can convene; places where they meet and face each other. The Austrian constitution provides that parliaments are the primary places where to make decisions that are binding on all. All acts of government, administration, police and the courts of law must have a legal basis. Each law must be adopted in a parliament.

The National Council (Nationalrat) is elected by all Austrian citizens. Its 183 Members discuss laws and rules that apply throughout Austria. However, they not only adopt legislation but also watch over its implementation by the government and the administration.

As Austria is a federally organized state (see the text on The Structure of the State), the nine federal states should also have a chance to voice their positions in the democratic procedure. This is why the Federal Council (Bundesrat) was established. Its members are elected by the diets of the Länder. The Federal Council has the right to object to a legislative decision of the National Council.

Each federal state has a state parliament (Land diet, Landtag). Its members are elected by all citizens of the federal state. The Land diet elects the Land government, and it decides on all matters that come within the competence of the federal states.

Each municipality has a municipal council (Gemeinderat) in which important matters are discussed and decided on the local level. In some municipalities it is common to hold citizens‘ assemblies in which all citizens of the municipality may participate.

Citizens‘ initiatives (Bürgerinitiativen) and popular initiatives (Volksbegehren) permit citizens to introduce their ideas to municipal councils and to parliaments. In consultative referendums citizens may take position on particular matters. In a referendum it is the citizens – and not the parliaments – who have the final decision on whether or not a law is to be enacted.

Parties and the general public

Democracies not only consist of individuals who state their opinion individually. In a democracy, individuals form associations, interest groups, religious communities etc. These organisations are often referred to as civil society. Civil society and its organisations cluster opinions, pool interests and launch new, often spontaneous ideas. It may also raise awareness of and interest in all those processes in a state that are necessary in a democracy. However, civil society is also important for our communal life. Many people are active on a voluntary and unpaid basis for example in safety and rescue organisations such as the volunteer fire-brigade or the Red Cross. The aim of civil society is not only to promote particular concerns of its members but also to shape the communal life in our country.

However, civil society cannot replace democratic procedures and institutions such as parliaments. Democracy also needs procedures which ensure that becoming a member of these democratic institutions is subject to rules that are equally binding for all. In these procedures, political parties have a central role. Political parties are groups of individuals who have joined for the purpose of participating in the shaping and passing of political decisions. Their aim is to obtain as many votes as possible in elections in order to play an influential role in a municipal council, a parliament or a government.

Apart from the parties, other institutions of great importance in Austria are the social partners. They are the organisations of the economy and of the employees. Both are obliged to organise in the so-called chambers (Chamber of Labour, Economic Chamber, Chamber of Agriculture etc.), whereas membership in trade unions and associations (e.g. the Federation of Austrian Industries) is voluntary. The function of the social partners is also to represent the interests of their members. They are important and influential negotiating partners of the government and of the political parties.