DEMOS-scholar David M. Wineroither, from the Centre for Social Sciences in Budapest, discussed the populist challenges that the Kelsenian vision of parliamentary democracy in Austria and other Western democracies are currently facing during a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, hosted by the Cal's Institute for European Studies on September 4.
According to Wineroither, as Hans Kelsen—one of the most influential legal philosophers in the 20th century—showed, pivotal political institutions, such as legislative chambers, form a primary site of social and political integration, and are indispensable to ensure democratic stability.
Kelsen advocated representative democracy for reasons that fiercely oppose populist thinking. While populism claims to embrace and defend the “will of the people”, Wineroither says that we can assume that such thing hardly exists.
Because of that, Wineroither discussed that populist anti-elitist and anti-institutional rhetoric (which claims to capture the preferences of a “silent majority” among citizens) puts key democratic achievements at stake, affecting public trust in power-sharing mechanisms and on accepting bargaining solutions that result in minority policies.
Wineroither discussed the Austrian case as an example where this seems evident. Having worked as a consensus democracy for decades, the European country has seen a rise of right-wing populist parties lately. As the country heads for a snap election on Sunday, far populist right and mainstream-populist conservatives are predicted to win another comfortable majority in the parliament.
“Anti-elitist and anti-institutional rhetoric that pits a stylized popular will against collective representation in parliament proves toxic to public trust in core institutions of representative democracy,” Wineroither said.
According to him, this applies both to majoritarian democracies, such as the UK, and power-sharing polities, such as in Austria, where governmental leaders representing centrist parties now openly challenge rulings of the highest courts. “Tellingly, former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, seeking re-election, refused to take his seat in parliament. Worryingly, that seemed to benefit rather than harm them at the polls.”
Populist rhetoric promotes a view of democratic politics as a zero-sum game. That means that it rejects ideas of mutual benefit through bargaining solutions, while it attacks key political institutions designed to engage political representatives in the hard task of working out a compromise.
Wineroither’s work on this topic will appear in an upcoming volume of the Austrian “Journal of Public Law‘” (Zeitschrift für öffentliches Recht). He will also discuss the topic in a public presentation at the House of History, Hofburg, Vienna, aimed to introduce the book “Democracy in Austria”, co-edited with Guenter Bischof.