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13: Franchise Reform

<< 12: The Coalition Ministry of 1893 || 14: Magyar Conquest of Hungary >>

THE history of Austria since the general election of 1901 is the history of franchise reform as a crowning attempt to restore parliament to normal working conditions. The premier, Dr von Körber, who had undertaken to overcome obstruction and who hoped to effect a compromise between Germans and Czechs, induced the Chamber to sanction the estimates, the contingent of recruits and other "necessities of state" for 1901 and 1902, by promising to undertake large public works in which Czechs and Germans were alike interested. These public works were chiefly a canal from the Danube to the Oder; a ship canal from the Danube to the Moldau near Budweis, and the canalization of the Moldau from Budweis to Prague; a ship canal running from the projected Danube-Oder canal near Prerau to the Elbe near Pardubitz, and the canalization of the Elbe from Pardubitz to Melnik; a navigable connexion between the Danube-Oder Canal and the Vistula and the Dniester. It was estimated that the construction of these four canals would require twenty years, the funds being furnished by a 4 % loan amortizable in ninety years. In addition to the canals, the cabinet proposed and the Chamber sanctioned the construction of a "second railway route to Trieste" designed to shorten the distance between South Germany, Salzburg and the Adriatic, by means of a line passing under the Alpine ranges of central and southern Austria. The principal sections of this line were named after the ranges they pierced, the chief tunnels being bored through the Tauern, Karawanken and Wochein hills. Sections were to be thrown open to traffic as soon as completed and the whole work to be ended during 1909. The line forms one of the most interesting railway routes in Europe. The cost, however, greatly exceeded the estimate sanctioned by parliament; and the contention that the parliamentary adoption of the Budget in 1901-1902 cost the state £100,000,0000 for public works is not entirely unfounded. True, these works were in most cases desirable and in some cases necessary, but they were hastily promised and often hastily begun under pressure of political expediency. The Körber administration was for this reason subsequently exposed to severe censure.

Despite these public works Dr von Körber found himself unable to induce parliament to vote the Budgets for 1903, 1904 or 1905, and was obliged to revert to the expedient employed by his predecessors of sanctioning the estimates by imperial ordinance under paragraph 14 of the constitution. His attempts in December 1902 and January 1903 to promote a compromise between Czechs and Germans proved equally futile. Körber proposed that Bohemia be divided into 10 districts, of which 5 would be Czech, 3 German and 2 mixed. Of the 234 district tribunals, 133 were to be Czech, 94 German and 7 mixed. The Czechs demanded on the contrary that both their language and German should be placed on an equal footing throughout Bohemia, and be used for all official purposes in the same way. As this demand involved the recognition of Czech as a language of internal service in Bohemia it was refused by the Germans. Thenceforward, until his fall on the 31st of December 1904, Körber governed practically without parliament. The Chamber was summoned at intervals rather as a pretext for the subsequent employment of paragraph 14 than in the hope of securing its assent to legislative measures. The Czechs blocked business by a pile of "urgency motions" and occasionally indulged in noisy obstruction. On one occasion a sitting lasted 57 hours without interruption. In consequence of Czech aggressiveness the German parties (the German Progressists, the German Populists, the Constitutional Landed Proprietors and the Christian Socialists) created a joint executive committee and a supreme committee of four members to watch over German racial interests.

By the end of 1904 it had become clear that the system of government by paragraph 14, which Dr von Körber had perfected, was not effective in the long run. Loans were needed for military and other purposes, and paragraph 14 itself declares that it cannot be employed for the contraction of any lasting burden upon the exchequer, nor for any sale of state patrimony. As the person of the premier had become so obnoxious to the Czechs that his removal would be regarded by them as a concession, his resignation was suddenly accepted by the emperor, and, on the 1st of January 1905, a former premier Baron von Gautsch, was appointed in his stead. Parliamentary activity was at once resumed; the Austro-Hungarian tariff contained in the Széll-Körber compact was adopted the estimates were discussed and the commercial treaty with Germany ratified. In the early autumn, however, a radical change came over the spirit of Austrian politics. For nearly three years Austria had been watching with bitterness and depression the course of the crisis in Hungary. Parliament had repeatedly expressed its disapproval of the Magyar demands upon the crown, but had succeeded only in demonstrating its own impotence. The feeling that Austria could be compelled by imperial ordinance under paragraph 14 to acquiesce in whatever concessions the crown might make to Hungary galled Austrian public opinion and prepared it for coming changes. In August 1905 the crown took into consideration and in September sanctioned the proposal that universal suffrage be introduced into the official programme of the Fejérváry cabinet then engaged in combating the Coalition in Hungary. It is not to be supposed that the king of Hungary assented to this programme without reflecting that what he sought to further in Hungary, it would be impossible for him, as emperor of Austria, to oppose in Cisleithania. His subsequent action justifies, indeed, the belief that, when sanctioning the Fejérváry programme, the monarch had already decided that universal suffrage should be introduced in Austria; but even he can scarcely have been prepared for the rapidity with which the movement in Austria gained ground and accomplished its object.

On the 15th of September 1905 a huge socialist and working-class demonstration in favour of universal suffrage took place before the parliament at Budapest. The Austrian Socialist party, encouraged by this manifestation and influenced by the revolutionary movement in Russia, resolved to press for franchise reform in Austria also. An initial demonstration, resulting in some bloodshed, was organized in Vienna at the beginning of November. At Prague, Graz and other towns, demonstrations and collisions with the police were frequent. The premier, Baron Gautsch, who had previously discountenanced universal suffrage while admitting the desirability of a restricted reform, then changed attitude and permitted an enormous Socialist demonstration, in support of universal suffrage, to take place (November 28) in the Vienna Ringstrasse. Traffic was suspended for five hours while an orderly procession of workmen, ten abreast, marched silently along the Ringstrasse past the houses of parliament. The demonstration made a deep impression upon public opinion. On the same day the premier promised to introduce by February a large measure of franchise reform so framed as to protect racial minorities from being overwhelmed at the polls by majorities of other races. On the 23rd of February 1906 he indeed brought in a series of franchise reform measures. Their main principles were the abolition of the curia or electoral class system and the establishment of the franchise on the basis of universal suffrage and the division of Austria electorally into racial compartments within which each race would be assured against molestation from other races. The Gautsch redistribution bill proposed to increase the number of constituencies from 425 to 455, to allot a fixed number of constituencies to each province and, within each Province to each race according to its numbers and tax-paying capacity. The reform bill proper proposed to enfranchise every male citizen above 24 years of age with one year's residential qualification.

At first the chances of the adoption of such a measure seemed small. It was warmly supported from outside by the Social Democrats, who held only 11 seats in the House; inside, the Christian Socialists or Lueger party were favourable on the whole as they hoped to gain seats at the expense of the German Progressives and German Populists and to extend their own organization throughout the empire. The young Czechs, too, were favourable, while the Poles reserved their attitude. Hostile in principle and by instinct, they waited to ascertain the mind of the emperor, before actively opposing the reform. With the exception of the German Populists, who felt that a German "Liberal" party could not well oppose an extension of popular rights, all the German Liberals were antagonistic, some bitterly, to the measure. The Constitutional Landed Proprietors who had played so large a part in Austrian politics since the 'sixties, and had for a generation held the leadership of the German element in parliament and in the country, saw themselves doomed and the leadership of the Germans given to the Christian Socialists. None of the representatives of the curia system fought so tenaciously for their privileges as did the German nominees of the curia of large landed proprietors. Their opposition proved unavailing. The emperor frowned repeatedly upon their efforts.

Baron Gautsch fell m April over a difference with the Poles, and his successor, Prince Konrad zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, who had taken over the reform bills, resigned also, six weeks later, as a protest against the action of the crown in consenting to the enactment of a customs tariff in Hungary distinct from, though identical with, the joint Austro-Hungarian tariff comprised in the Széll-Körber compact and enacted as a joint tariff by the Reichsrath. A new cabinet was formed (June 2) by Baron von Beck, permanent under secretary of state in the ministry for agriculture, an official of considerable ability who had first acquired prominence as an instructor of the heir-apparent, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, in constitutional and administrative law. By dint of skillful negotiation with the various parties and races, and steadily supported by the emperor who, on one occasion, summoned the recalcitrant party leaders to the Hofburg ad audiendum verbum and told them the reform "must be accomplished," Baron Beck succeeded, in October 1906, in attaining a final agreement, and on the 1st of December in securing the adoption of the reform. During the negotiations the number of constituencies was raised to 516, divided, according to provinces, as follows:

Bohemia 130 previously 110
Galicia 106 " 78
Lower Austria 64 " 46
Moravia 49 " 43
Styria 30 " 27
Tirol 25 " 21
Upper Austria 22 " 20
Austrian Silesia 15 " 12
Bukovina 14 " 11
Carniola 12 " 11
Dalmatia 11 " 11
Carinthia 10 " 10
Salzburg 7 " 7
Istria 6 " 5
Görz and Gradisca 6 " 5
Trieste and territory 5 " 5
Vorarlberg 4 " 4

In the allotment of the constituencies to the various races their tax-paying capacity was taken into consideration. In mixed districts separate constituencies and registers were established for the electors of each race, who could only vote on their own register for a candidate of their own race. Thus Germans were obliged to vote for Germans and Czechs for Czechs; and, though there might be victories of Clerical over Liberal Germans or of Czech Radicals over Young Czechs, there could be no victories of Czechs over Germans, Poles over Ruthenes, or Slovenes over Italians. The constituencies were divided according to race as follows:

Germans of all parties 233 previously 205
Czechs of all parties 108 " 81
Poles 80 " 71
Southern Slavs (Slovenes, Croats, Serbs) 37 " 27
Ruthenes 34 " 11
Italians 19 " 18
Rumanians 5 " 5

These allotments were slightly modified at the polls by the victory of some Social Democratic candidates not susceptible of strict racial classification. The chief feature of the allotment was, however, the formal overthrow of the fiction that Austria is preponderatingly a German country and not a country preponderatingly Slav with a German dynasty and a German facade. The German constituencies, though allotted in a proportion unduly favourable, left the Germans, with 233 seats, in a permanent minority as compared with the 259 Slav seats. Even with the addition of the "Latin" (Rumanian and Italian) seats the "German-Latin block" amounted only to 257. This "block" no longer exists in practice, as the Italians now tend to co-operate rather with the Slavs than with the Germans. The greatest gainers by the redistribution were the Ruthenes, whose representation was trebled, though it is still far from being proportioned to their numbers. This and other anomalies will doubtless be corrected in future revisions of the allotment, although the German parties, foreseeing that any revision must work out to their disadvantage, stipulated that a two-thirds majority should be necessary for any alteration of the law.

After unsuccessful attempts by the Upper House to introduce plural voting, the bill became law in January 1907, the peers insisting only upon the establishment of a fixed maximum number or numerus clausus, of non-hereditary peers, so as to prevent the resistance of the Upper Chamber from being overwhelmed at any critical moment by an influx of crown nominees appointed ad hoc. The general election which took place amid considerable enthusiasm on the 14th of May resulted in a sweeping victory for the Social Democrats whose number rose from 11 to 87; in a less complete triumph for the Christian Socialists who increased from 27 to 67; and in the success of the extreme over the conservative elements in all races. A classification of the groups in the new Chamber presents many difficulties, but the following statement is approximately accurate. It must be premised that, in order to render the Christian Socialist or Lueger party the strongest group m parliament, an amalgamation was effected between them and the conservative Catholic party:

German Conservatives - Total
Christian Socialists 96
German Agrarians 19
German Liberals -
Progressives 15
Populists 29
Pan-German radicals (Wolf group) 13
Unattached Pan-Germans 3
Unattached Progressives 2 ---> 177
Czechs -
Czech Agrarians 28
Young Czechs 18
Czech Clericals 17
Old Czechs 7
Czech National Socialists 9
Realists 2
Unattached Czech 1 ---> 82
Social Democrats -
Of all races 87 ---> 87
Poles -
Democrats 26
Conservatives 15
Populists 18
Centre 12
Independent Socialist 1 ---> 72
Ruthenes -
National Democrats 25
Old or Russophil Ruthenes 5 ---> 30
Slovenes -
Clericals 17
Southern Slav Club -
Croats, Serbs, Slovene Liberal 20 ---> 37
Italians -
Clerical Populists 11
Liberals 4 ---> 15
Rumanians -
Rumanian Club 5 ---> 5
Jews -
Zionists 4
Democrats 1 ---> 5
Unclassified, vacancies, &c. 6 ---> 6

The legislature elected by universal suffrage worked fairly smoothly during the first year of its existence. The estimates were voted with regularity, racial animosity was somewhat less prominent, and some large issues were debated. The desire not to disturb the emperor's Diamond Jubilee year by untoward scenes doubtless contributed to calm political passion, and it was celebrated in 1908 with complete success. But it was no sooner over than the crisis over the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been dealt with above, eclipsed all purely domestic affairs in the larger European question.

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