Overview and context
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Austria is a federal republic comprised of nine federal states or provinces (Burgenland, Carinthia, Lower Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Upper Austria, Vienna, and Vorarlberg). Legislative powers rest with the Federal Assembly, consisting of two chambers: the National Council (Nationalrat) and the Federal Council (Bundesrat).
The National Council has 183 members. Its members are elected for five years, using a proportional representation system. In the most recent parliamentary elections in 2013 the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) came first, closely followed by the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The Greens, Team Stronach and NEOS are also represented in Parliament.
The Federal Council has 61 members and its main function is to represent the provinces and their interests at the federal level. However, unlike the National Council, its members are not elected by direct popular vote. Instead, they are delegated by the federal states, in proportion to the relative strengths of the parties in the provincial legislatures. The number of members delegated by each state depends on its size: the most populous province sends 12 members to the Federal Council; the smallest province delegates three members.
Passing federal legislation involves both chambers of the Federal Assembly. However, most powers lie with the National Council. The legislative process begins with a bill being introduced into the National Council, most commonly by the government and its ministers. Less commonly, Private Members, the Federal Council and National Council committees can also introduce bills, and bills can be initiated by popular demand. Once a bill has been introduced to parliament, it is assigned to a committee or the National Council may – on very rare occasions – hold a first reading, involving a plenary discussion of the whole house.
The relevant committee deliberates on the bill and often amendments are made to the draft text. Once a bill has been approved by a majority of the committee’s members, a report is drawn up, detailing the discussions and changes made. Then the bill is passed back to the plenary for a second reading, and the different parliamentary groups can state their opinions and propose further changes. At the end of the second reading, the National Council votes on the bill, and on any amendments. A bill passes if at least one third of Council members are present and a simple majority votes in favour. The entire bill is then put to a vote in a third and final reading.
After the National Council enacts a bill, it is referred to the Federal Council for approval. While the Federal Council cannot amend the proposed legislation, it can reject it by means of a reasoned objection. However, with a few exceptions, the Federal Council has only a “suspensive veto” and cannot prevent a bill from being passed into law.