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Journal of Democracy 11.2 (2000) 26-40

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The End of Consensus in Austria and Switzerland

Richard Rose

Trouble in Advanced Democracies?

The entry of Jörg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party into Austrian government has raised an international outcry about the threat to democracy posed by a demagogic leader who in the past has endorsed Nazi policies. Yet these fears have distracted attention from the real reasons for Haider's appeal. It is superficial to interpret Haider's vote as showing that Austrians want to be ruled by a Führer or to base their government on racist policies, for 73 percent of Austrians did not vote for the Freedom Party in the October 1999 elections. Moreover, public opinion surveys show that Austrians tend to be more tolerant of immigrants than their neighbors in Central and Eastern Europe. 1

The rise of Haider is a symptom of shortcomings in Austria's existing democratic practices. Austria's establishment has ignored the theory of democracy set out by Joseph Schumpeter, who served as finance minister in post-1918 Austria and subsequently became a Harvard professor of economics. Schumpeter rejected the view that democracy is a system that allows the people to decide what government should do. Instead, he defined democracy as "free competition among would-be leaders for the vote of the electorate," a practical and peaceful means of electing--and ejecting--the few who govern. 2

For most of the time since 1945, the leaders of Austria's two largest parties, the Socialists (who changed their formal name to the Social Democratic Party in 1991) and the People's Party, have rigged the electoral marketplace by forming a Grand Coalition: After fighting each other at election time, leaders of the two parties would join together [End Page 26] afterwards to divide up cabinet posts. The only way Austrians could protest against this electoral monopoly was to vote for the Freedom Party, which was free to make provocative statements while in opposition. In neighboring Switzerland, a Grand Coalition has governed for more than 40 years. There, too, in 1999 angry voters gave sharply increased support to demagogic right-wing politicians. In such circumstances, everyone concerned about the rise of extremist parties needs to understand that their outbursts are a way of voicing protest when competition is stifled in the name of consensus.

Schumpeter's Model of Competition

Electoral competition offers voters a choice between alternative governments. There can be such a thing as "too much" choice, however, when the ballot paper in a multiparty system is bigger than an elephant's ear and the parliament has up to a dozen different parties. In such cases, the voice of the people becomes a Tower of Babel, and it can be difficult and time-consuming to reach consensus about who governs, let alone about what policies government should pursue.

Schumpeter simplified democracy into a system of duopolistic party competition in which voters have a simple choice between two parties, the "Ins" and the "Outs." Voters satisfied with what the government has delivered can vote to keep it in office. Dissatisfied voters can vote it out of office, making the "Outs" the new "Ins." Competitive elections give the mass of the population a chance to pass judgment on what is done by those who hold high office--and give political elites a strong incentive to pay attention to the concerns of the electorate.

According to Schumpeter, the purpose of elections is to produce a government, and the parliament's responsibility is not to represent the opinions (and the ignorance) of the populace but to decide who should be prime minister. (In assuming the existence of a parliamentary system, Schumpeter was reflecting his European origins.) The prime minister then has the task of assembling a cabinet. Once the cabinet is assembled, the prime minister must maintain the confidence of the parliament and the public, while protecting himself against competition.

Schumpeter rejected the Kulturkampf politics that had led ideological parties to battle one another in the streets of Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Paris between the two...


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