21 Feb 2018

Wave of direct democracy takes Austrian government by surprise

Hundreds of thousands have united over a smoking ban proposed by Cancer Aid and the Vienna Medical Council. The situation has exposed the current administration's problems with providing technology capable of keeping up with political engagement. 

Christine Tragler
Christine Tragler Der Standard, Austria
Source: Der Standard
Wave of direct democracy takes Austrian government by surprise - NewsMavens
Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

The ÖVP and FPÖ, Austria's ruling coalition, must be taken aback by the recent wave of direct democracy in Austria. Within a few days, the "Do not smoke" campaign for maintaining the smoking ban in the catering industry has received over 170,000 signatures, and could gather many more this week.

There are three other major civic initiatives underway at the moment -- the other two being petitions about equal rights for women, and asylum for migrants. 

The support signatures are being collected directly on the website of the Ministry of the Interior, but the site encountered technical problems and was at times unavailable. 

It is impossible to determine if these glitches were due to man or machine, or if they impacted the number of collected signatures. It is clear, however, that the government will need to do better to live up to its promise of a fully functioning direct digital democracy. A failure to do so would make a poor beginning for Austria's EU Council Presidency, which is due to start on July 1, 2018. 

politics, technology, health

Details from the story:

  • During the coalition negotiations, under pressure from the FPÖ, the ÖVP agreed to forfeit the planned smoking ban in the catering industry.
  • Instead, they announced that restaurants would still be permitted to set up areas for smokers or -- if they do not have enough space -- to fully allow smoking. The goal of the "Do not smoke" referendum is to prevent this exception.
  • The referendum on women's rights has gathered over 80,000 declarations of support within one week, while the referendum "Implementing asylum according to European law" has over 22,000 signatures.
  • The Ministry of the Interior's direct democracy website has gone down several times during the signature collection campaigns.
  • The department's spokesman has told Der Standard that the computer servers which process petition support letters are "extremely slow" and the computing power is reaching its capacity limits.
  • Voters are increasingly turning towards direct democracy petitions
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