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Proporz (German: [pʁoˈpɔʁts], from Proportionalität) is a long-standing doctrine within the politics of the second Austrian republic that government posts be allocated to parties in proportion to their electoral support. However, recent developments, both internal and external, have arguably weakened the influence of the Proporz system in Austrian politics.
The underlying principle
Under the Proporz system, the posts of Cabinet Ministers are filled by party members as closely as possible in proportion to the votes won by their respective parties in the general elections. Furthermore, the particular portfolios are selected by each party on the basis of its constituency or any perceived ideological mandate to them.
Thus, for example, the portfolio of Minister for Labour and Social Relations was nearly always held by a member of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), while the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), with traditionally strong support from farmers, took the Ministry which controlled agriculture and forestry.
In this basic form, the principle would not be exclusive to Austria, but would be an element of many countries which have coalition governments.
The Proporz system arose out of the need for balanced, consensual governance in the early years of Austria's second republic. At the time, the nation was consumed in an effort to rebuild the country after the devastation of World War II. Moreover, the nation was still haunted by the specter of the ideological factionalism which had characterized Austria's first republic (cf. the events of the Austrian Civil War). Thus, the doctrine of Proporz is intimately linked to the idea of the grand coalition, in which the major political parties, in the case of post-war Austria the SPÖ and the ÖVP, share in the government.
The memories of the factionalism that characterised the First Republic were so strong that even after the ÖVP won an absolute majority in the first postwar election, in 1945, it immediately sought a coalition with the SPÖ. Even when one major party governed alone (as the ÖVP did from 1966 to 1970 and the SPÖ did from 1970 to 1983), the other party was never really shut out of decision-making.
Degeneration and reform
However, the doctrine was later charged with having degenerated into a system of patronage and nepotism pervading too many aspects of Austrian life. Positions down to minor bureaucratic posts were commonly allocated by party membership. The reaches of Proporz went as far as the educational system and even the banking business, in which political parties and municipalities were traditionally tightly involved.
Resentment of the system among large reaches of the population had become widespread by the late 1990s, and it is believed that Jörg Haider's criticism of Proporz gained him the support of many centrist voters who were not necessarily supporters of his nationalist and anti-immigration rhetoric.
When his then-party, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), joined the government in 2000, many were expecting a discontinuation of the system in all fields except government itself. However, few people today would claim that this has happened. Haider's followers contend that reforms were stymied by the resistance of the FPÖ's coalition partner, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP). His detractors hold that Haider had never had a true reform in mind, but merely endeavoured to heave members of his own political disposition into positions of power (a practice referred to as umfärben in German, which roughly translates as 're-coloring').
It is probably fair to say that the major impetus for the rescaling of Austria's system of Proporz was of an external nature. Austria's membership in the European Union reduced the degree to which government is allowed to interfere in private businesses such as telecommunications and banking, where Proporz had been all-pervading.
A diversified media and the possibilities of modern information technology also hold the government to higher standards of transparency and accountability. Above all, there has been a sea change in the public's attitude to the practice and its willingness to confront it.
In conclusion, it can be argued that while they have not altogether vanished from the politics of Austria, the ideas of Proporz are much less pervasive today than they were only a decade ago.