To be honest: The Austrian Parliament has opened itself a lot towards the public in recent years, e.g. through its visitor center, its new website or the TV broadcasts on ORF3. But when it comes to visiting parliamentary debates, the situation has worsened on the visitors’ balcony, as I had to experience again today. Unfortunately, in the face of the state of domestic politics, it is no surprise that citizens don’t feel welcome in the most exciting place of our democracy.
In particular, the first row of seats on the visitors’ balcony was removed, thereby reducing the number of seats by a third to approx. 120 seats which means that there are less seats for visitors than for members of parliament. In addition, visitors can now only see half of its politicians on the floor and lose the feeling of belonging to and participating in the proceedings below. So, we also lose those unfiltered impressions of lively parliamentarism, those discussions, interjections and other events that are not captured by TV cameras.
This is particularly sad when – as it was the case this morning – a lot of schoolchildren are visiting the Parliament and get the first impression that politics should only be viewed from distance. So, the distance between citizens and politicians grows not only physically but also symbolically, the alienation of our political system manifests itself in this cowardly decision.
Because, as security people told me today, the reason for these measures were flyers, banners, interjections and other forms of protests which caused short interruptions of the plenary sittings in the past. Today, it seems as if our democracy can’t even handle small acts of protests which some politicians even welcomed in the past. Finally, I should also mention that the security personnel immediately reminded me of the ban on photography when I tried to take a photo today and that of course you’re not allowed to have a laptop or tablet with you.
It seems as if politicians want to avoid any unfiltered impressions from their work in the Austria Parliament and therefore constrain interested citizens who want to use social media to share pictures, tweets or live blogposts from political debates. I guess it might also be a problem that the house rules are already seven years old, written before the rapid growth of smartphones, Facebook, etc.
But for a lively, participatory democracy to thrive, citizens must feel welcome in the Austrian Parliament, they must get the impression to directly participate in the democratic processes and there shouldn’t be such a big distance between citizens and members of parliament. Bringing back the first row of seats on the visitors’ gallery would be a small but important step in the direction!