Federal reforms in Austria: is now the time to overcome gridlock?

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The promise of ‘change’ was key for the Austrian Christian Democrats’ landslide victory in last year’s general elections. Recent sub-state polls, however, have perpetuated the influence of incumbent governors – and their power to veto the new government’s plans to reform Austria’s federal system. Patrick Utz analyses the links between current electoral dynamics, the country’s corporatist heritage and the potential for federal reforms in Austria.

When in October 2017 the Christian Democrat ÖVP and their 31-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, won their first federal elections in 15 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 promised reforms will most probably lead to further centralisation at the expense of the nine constituent Länder. Rather than the direction of change, the puzzling question about Kurz’s plans is whether they will occur in the first place.

Deadlock through informal vetoes

Austria’s peculiar system of cooperative federalism, along with the country’s strong corporatist tradition has long been immune to noteworthy changes. In spite of the Länder’s very limited self-rule and quasi-negligible formal mechanisms of shared-rule at the centre, regional political elites have long been able to have their say in federal decision-making. The most visible mechanism of these informal forms of regional interference is the ‘Conference of Governors’: a regular gathering of the nine Länder’s heads of government with no legal status but with very effective veto powers concerning federal legislation. Subtler forms of political influence, particularly through party-internal channels, might have been an even more powerful tool in the hands of regional elites. Continue reading