Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

"Selection and Election" "Die Qual der Auswahl vor der Wahl" article in Der Standard by Dr Melanie Sully

This article appeared in the quality Austrian daily "Der Standard", 12.8. 2013 and illustrates the greater independence of UK MPs in parliament, highlighted by the vote against military action on Syria, a resounding defeat for Prime Minister Cameron.

The article looks at candidate selection by political parties, women in parliament in France, UK, Ireland, Austria and the individual rights of MPs in parliaments.
Full article in German by Dr Melanie Sully,
summary in English
A recent OSCE Report on Austria notes that legislation does not provide for Independent candidates challenging OSCE commitments and that apart from the parties' own rules, there are no special provisions for promoting women candidates.
The election system can often play a role in gender and politics but even in majority systems as in GB and France measures can be taken to compensate for what might otherwise tend to favour male candidates. For example after the last election in France there was 27% female representation in parliament which is the same percentage as after the last election in Austria.
Independent MPs
Once elected, an MP in the UK has arguably more scope for independent action than in Austria due to the fact that they can claim a direct link with voters. Some have policies which could be at odds with the party line eg on Europe. Since voting records in parliament are publicised, constituents will know which way their MP voted and this is widely reported in the local press. The government of course has to get its programme through and expects loyalty from the party cohorts in parliament. However parliamentary votes are graded by the whips on a system from one to three. Ignoring party instructions on a grade one vote whether on attendance or voting will be overlooked whilst rebelling on a grade three vote, can lead to serious consequences. Many accept this and voluntarily resign from eg certain committee posts. Resignation of an incumbent MP leads to a by-election rather than the next one moving up on the party list.

An MP elected via preferential votes on the List however has little scope for manoeuvre and will be expected to conform to the party line more, potentially creating friction with voters having high expectations of “independence”. Conscience voting is a separate issue and tolerance of this exists in many legislatures.

In all the improved preferential votes electoral reform in Austria cannot be muddled up with the majoritarian system as practised in the British parliamentary culture. This allows for greater possibility to speak in a debate and the Speaker has more discretion to call on MPs to take the floor. Recent reforms allow for more transparency in selection to committees free from the party whips. In addition there is the chance for an individual MP to introduce amendments to a Bill or a private members’ bill as we see on the question of Europe which can attract great media interest.

Efforts at introducing a greater personality element therefore in Austria have to work in a political environment rooted in the dominance of the parliamentary groups. Whilst the disadvantages of the British electoral system are obvious it must be noted that in the UK it was recently overwhelmingly endorsed by the people in a national referendum. It remains to be seen if reforms introduced in Austria will have the desired effect of engaging voters’ interest and participation and restoring trust in politicians.

Importantly once elected individual MPs have few rights beyond the parliamentary Groups in Austria. In comparison there are more chances to speak in the British House of Commons for a single MP and they can also gain some media attention by introducing bills (see the current discussion on the EU). Recently in the UK the composition of committees has been opened up and allows for more transparency beyond the Whips.
In Austria this time there are more chances for a candidate to move up the Party list by winning preferential votes but if elected they will come into the discipline of the Group. This could strain their trust amongst voters who expect that they will somehow be able to act more independently.
The British election system has some obvious weaknesses but it was nevertheless endorsed by the people in a national referendum. It remains to be seen if the Austrian electoral reforms will do anything to restore trust in politicians or increase mobilisation and interest.
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