A number of current and former government leaders from across the political spectrum have strongly criticized recent politically-motivated assaults on the Austrian judicial system, drafting a Volksbegehren (Public Referendum) against corruption, calling on all parties to preserve the independence and integrity of the judiciary. The Referendum can be a popwerful tool that with the signatures of 100,000 qualified voters, forces a debate in the Nationalrat (National Assembly).
Presented on Tuesday, June 15, this non-partisan initiative was authored by twelve proponents and many supporters, including lawyer Werner Doralt; the former president of the Federal Court of Audit, Franz Fiedler; former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Irmgard Griss; former chairman of the International Anti-Corruption Academy, Martin Kreutner; former legal affairs spokesman for the ÖVP Michael Ikrath; constitutional lawyer Heinz Mayer, former “Ibiza affair” prosecutor Christina Jilek and former third Nationalrat President, Heide Schmidt.
Prompted by recent domestic political events like the attacks of the ÖVP against the public prosecutor and the still ongoing Novomatic scandal, the initiative’s demands stretch far beyond an independent judiciary protected from political pressure, seeking to curtail systemic corruption caused by the entanglement of party politics and business. Among other things, the initiators are advocating more transparency when appointing new posts; another important issue is the independence of the media, which has seen a decline in the last couple of years.
“We need reform because corruption is undermining our judicial system,” explained Kreutner during the presentation. The complete Volksbegehren outlines 72 individual measures divided in five sections: dignity and integrity in politics; separation of powers; independence of the judiciary and supervisory authorities; expanded anti-corruption legislation and, finally, advancement of the media and the freedom of the press. Mayer emphasized the importance of the separation of powers, seeing it as the only way to exert necessary oversight. In addition, he stressed that members of parliament should answer to citizens, and not their respective political parties.
Time for Change
Ikrath stated that Austria has the constitutional framework to achieve all the necessary changes and added that “ sloppy handling of corruption in the past has led to it becoming a systemic problem.” Indeed, Austria has a higher corruption index than the EU average, according to the Global Corruption Barometer published by Transparency International.
“These numbers should alarm accountable politicians,” Ikrath added, stating that the referendum is a suitable way to raise awareness and appealing to chancellor Sebastian Kurz to take action.
The referendum has already prompted a response from the government. In a written statement, Kurz was receptive to giving serious consideration to the Volksbegehren, particularly the “strengthening of the independent judiciary” and the establishment of an independent federal attorney.
Apart from gaining support from prominent officials, the initiative has received public endorsements from three major parties – the NEOS, SPÖ and Greens.
The referendum has been formally filed and start collecting signatures by the end of June, with the initiative launching a crowdfunding campaign on June 22 in the hope of adding €70,000 to the €15,000 provided by the organizers for organizational expenses. In the interest of transparency, a list detailing how the funds were used will be published online after the referendum concludes.