Democracy: A form of society and government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly. Following the examples of the United States and the French Revolution, democracy became the dominant social form in the western world in the 20th century.
In Austria, very simple forms of democracy existed in small communities from the Middle Ages, Weistuemer. At a regional level, more complex forms of representative democracy were exercised: People were chosen by particular bodies which they had to represent and to which they were responsible. In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the representatives of the peasant courts and the valleys in Tyrol and Vorarlberg, the councillors and mayors of the towns and cities had similar functions. The town guilds also had a democratic form of organisation.
At a provincial and national level, democratic endeavours were repressed and finally abolished by the emergence of Absolutism from the 17th century onwards. Here the ruler had absolute power as well as sole power in judicial matters. Only the political developments in the wake of the 1848 Revolution brought a democratic constitution. The 1848/49 Reichstag was an instrument of representative democracy, but its draft constitution did not come into force. A consequence of the revolution, however, was that local municipalities formed in 1850 and, after 1861, Diets in which citizen's representatives assembled (according to the curia principle). The parliaments of the Monarchy, whose deputies were directly elected on a simple majority principle from 1873 onwards, were representative of only a part of the population. Similarly, the 1907 universal suffrage was limited to men. A decisive factor in the democratisation process since 1867, however, became the freedom of assembly and the right to form associations, parties, and various interest groups (trade unions, chambers of commerce), where members of the lower classes were able to learn democratic forms of action.
The Republic of Austria was founded in 1918 as a democratic state on the basis of popular sovereignty, and the Federal Constitution of 1920 along with bodies such as political parties, chambers and various organs enabled the realisation of democratic life. In practice, this rule of the people was exercised through elections to parliament, provincial assemblies and local councils on the basis of proportional representation, although most power was given to the political parties. From the late 1920s anti-democratic forces were increasing. From the dissolution of parliament in March 1933 to the Maiverfassung (May Constitution) in 1934, democracy in Austria was gradually abolished. At lower levels, however, anti-democratic forms of government were not entirely successful. Only National Socialism achieved the abolition of all democratic forms and their replacement by the Fuehrer principle.
The Republic of Austria was re-established in 1945 as a representative democracy. People's representatives were again elected in the first elections to parliament and to the provincial assemblies on November 25, 1945. Interest-group representatives were also established on a democratic basis. In addition, various elements of direct democracy have played an increasing role, for example Citizens´ Initiatives, referendums (Volksbefragung) and popular initiatives (Volksbegehren, since 1963) and plebiscites (Volksabstimmung). Frequently their results have led to corresponding decisions by the elected bodies on all levels (1964 "Rundfunksvolksbegehren", 1978 plebiscite on the construction of a nuclear power station at Zwentendorf; 1994 plebiscite on the accession to the European Union).