By IGO – Interest Group of Public Benefit Organisations
Framework Conditions of the Austrian Civil Society
The IGO- Interest Group of Public Benefit Organizations, in cooperation with the WU-University of Economics and Business of Vienna, updated the 2014 Civil Society Index Austria. The study examines the social climate in Austria and the conditions for civil society organisations. The results can be compared with a CIVICUS study of 2014 (More-Hollerweger et al., 2014) and show that the situation of civil society has changed significantly under the right-wing populist government in power since 2017.
The importance of a pluralistic civil society for democracy is undisputed. Political framework conditions are decisive for the functioning of civil society in many respects. Apart from general civil rights such as freedom of association or expression, opportunities for participation in legislative procedures, the government’s information policy, the quality of the welfare state and public financial support for civil society organisations (CSOs) play an important role (Pape et al., 2019).
Currently, the model of liberal, representative democracy is in crisis worldwide, as numerous indicators point to (Freedom House, 2019; Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018; Mounk, 2018). One aspect of this is the rise of (right-wing) populist parties and increasingly authoritarian governments. Even in the consolidated democracies of Western Europe and North America, a marked decline in confidence in political institutions and political participation can be observed (IDEA, 2018). The clearness of this trend has led researchers to speak of a “democratic rollback” (Diamond, 2008) or even of a “third wave of autocratization” (Lührmann & Lindberg, 2018).
Empirical findings show that critical civil society and independent CSOs are usually among the first targets of authoritarian regimes (Cheskin & March, 2015; Doyle, 2016, 2017; Greskovits, 2017). In the process of developing into authoritarian governments, the first aim is usually to delegitimize civil society. Then, political participation is being restricted and changes in public financing along with a polarization between “good” and “bad” civil society. Then, changes in the legal framework follow. This process can be called civil society capture (Moder & Pranzl, 2019)
The study focuses on the general political climate in relation to civil society, democracy and participation, fundamental rights and financing. By analysing the gradual process of the development of authoritarian politics in a relatively stable and developed democracy, the findings are relevant for current tendencies in many European countries.
With regard to the general climate, a clear polarisation of the discourse and delegitimisation of civil society have taken place, for example, through the imputation of profit interests, the devaluation of CSO´s work, and the increase of a generally negative, exclusionary rhetoric. With regard to democracy and participation, CSOs are much less involved in legislative procedures. Review periods have been shortened, and the CSOs are no longer included in the legislative process. Politics has become less transparent and it hardly communicates with civil society actors. Civil rights are well developed in Austria by international standards. However, freedom of assembly has been restricted in recent years, above all through the extension of the notification period for assemblies and the establishment of so-called protection areas. A detailed examination of public funding shows that there are changes in financing that obviously affect critical CSOs oriented towards diversity. Particularly in the areas of migration, art, women’s policy, labour market policy and development policy, some of these CSOs have experienced existentially threatening restrictions of public funding.
The changes as a whole result in a clear pattern: they correspond to the processes of development of authoritarian governments known from the literature. Although Austria is a fundamentally liberal democracy with well-developed fundamental rights, there are clearly observable tendencies to limit the critical potential of civil society and its participation in political decision-making processes. There have always been politically motivated financing decisions, as well as differing views on desired participation and conflicts between politics and civil society. However, the policy of systematically suppressing contradiction, protest and diversity through a variety of interlocking measures is in contradiction with the Austrian tradition. It is an expression of an increasingly authoritarian, right-wing populist policy. Although democracy in Austria is not in crisis and it works well in principle, its quality is threatened.
The study is based on 53 interviews with experts and representatives of civil society organisations conducted between August 2018 and February 2019. In February 2019, a quantitative survey was conducted on changes in resources, the climate and the legal situation. 310 CSOs’ representatives responded. Further, a representative survey was conducted on the perception of civil society by the population. This was complemented by three focus groups in which the results were discussed.
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