In a democracy, all individuals are equal in rights. To join in political discourse in a democracy, nobody needs to prove that he or she is an expert in politics, economics or law. To participate in elections, one must have the right to vote. In order to have the right to vote, all one needs to have is a certain age. Only persons who have committed particular crimes may be excluded from voting by decision of the sentencing court.
Requirements for coexistence in a society
The coexistence of individuals in a diverse society and in a democratic state poses multiple challenges. Life in freedom – which presupposes mutual respect between fellow individuals – may be demanding. Recognizing other individuals as equals, and meeting the consequent standards of conduct in social interaction, poses a major challenge to many individuals – for instance because their education was guided by other ideas and values, because they hold certain prejudices, or because they just do not want it. Political debates and the search for compromise may lead to frustration.
Democracy needs support
In a democracy nobody can be forced to take an interest in politics or to get actively involved in it. Compulsion would be incompatible with democracy’s promise (see the text on Democracy) of freedom and equality. For democracy and the constitution to endure and be guaranteed, they must have the widest possible popular support. Democracy and the constitution rely on citizens that are convinced of and committed to them. They need citizens who are equal to the demands – and to the frustrations – of a democracy and who encourage others to follow their example.
Constitution of an open society
The constitution is to guarantee an open society – open for other opinions and other ways of life, new ideas and new members. An open society needs open-minded individuals. They should be prepared to critically reflect their own ideas and their environment, the things that are going on in society and in the state. To be able to do that, they need to have education, access to information and the freedom to engage in public discourse.
School and education
The constitution guarantees to each individual the right to education. It provides that school is to impart the skills and knowledge required for social coexistence as free individuals that are equal in rights. This includes the ability to live in a diverse society as it also exists in publicly maintained schools. It also includes a knowledge of history and culture, political opinions and religions. In Austria, parents are under obligation to send their children – boys and girls – to school (compulsory schooling). The so-called „school partnership“ (Schulpartnerschaft) is to ensure that questions and problems pertaining to school are discussed and solved jointly by teachers, parents and pupils.
Freedom of science
The constitution also guarantees the freedom of science and the existence of universities. This includes the freedoms to challenge opinions and traditional views, to voice criticism and to search for new findings. These freedoms are fundamental to an open discussion of social, economic and political questions.
Public discourse and participation
The democratic constitution guarantees the function of the public sphere as a site for encounter, interaction, confrontation and discussion. Each individual is to have the right – the respect of the freedom of others provided – to freely voice his/her opinion (see the text on Freedom). Individuals are to be free to assemble, to demonstrate for a cause, to associate. By laying down these rights, the constitution guarantees the freedom to pool concerns and interests and to vent criticism in public places, in the media and also under the eyes of the state.
Whenever democracy is to be restricted or abolished, what is curtailed first is the freedom to assemble, to discuss in public, to voice one’s opinion and to vent criticism. This is usually followed by a restriction of the freedom of the media: Journalists are denounced by politicians or even prosecuted by the police and the courts of law.
Public debate may call attention to distress, injustice, oppression or the denial of rights and freedoms. Through public debate, such circumstances are brought to the attention also of others, who are not directly affected by them. They can make the distress and injustice suffered by others their own concern. Politics thus becomes more than a means to push through the interests of a particular group. Distress and injustice in a society come to be perceived as issues that concern all members of that society and which should be solved jointly. In Austria such movements have on several occasions given important impulses to politics. The occupation of the Hainburg wetland forest in 1984 has strengthened the environmentalist movement. The “sea of lights” of 1993 has been understood to this day as a powerful manifestation in support of human rights and tolerance.
The goal of mutual understanding
The freedoms of speech and of assembly are essential for democracy. However, they can also turn into a danger for democracy. In the 1920s, the major political parties in Austria fought out their conflicts on the streets. Their followers opposed each other in irreconcilable hostility. Even in today’s world there are individuals who claim to speak “on behalf of the people” or “on behalf of the majority”. They condemn dissenters for instance as “enemies of the people”. This means to reject the diversity and open-mindedness which is the essence of a democratic society. It means to deny conversation and to tolerate no opinion other than one’s own.
For democratic public discourse to have a chance to survive, what is necessary is a willingness to seek mutual understanding. What is required is respect for others and for their opinions (see the text on Democracy).
Public discourse requires access to information
For public discourse to have a chance to take place, people must have access to information. For this reason, the constitution requires that political decisions in parliaments must be made in open meeting. Anyone may follow parliamentary proceedings on the internet. Parliamentary sittings are open to the general public. The aim of political control (see the text on Democracy) is to obtain information and to make it available to anyone. All laws in force must be accessible for anyone in Austria. They are available for download on the website of the Legal Information System (RIS). If somebody goes to court or is indicted, the trial is open to the public. Court judgments are published and are open to be criticized.
The constitution guarantees the right to obtain information. Anyone may address questions to the administrative authorities and demand information. A lot of information on the state and its administration is available on the internet.
The special role and responsibility of the media
The constitution guarantees the freedom of the media. Media – newspapers, TV, radio, internet portals – cover what they consider important. They bring certain issues into focus and state opinions. Many people rely on the truth of what they read in papers or on the internet or what they see on TV. Media thus have an important function in democracy. They can strengthen democratic society, or they can disseminate prejudice and rate some opinions and moods higher than others. The media are therefore often called the “4th power” in a state – in addition to Parliament, the executive branch and the courts. This is to say that by their coverage they can influence many things going on in a state. On the other hand, however, it means that they have to fulfil a special function of monitoring the state and the parties and of promoting public debate, responsibility and understanding.