President of Austria
|President of Austria
Bundespräsident der Republik Österreich
Executive branch in Austrian Politics |
Office of the President
Mr. President |
|Status||Head of State|
|Residence||Leopoldine Wing, Hofburg Imperial Palace|
|Seat||Innere Stadt, Vienna|
|Nominator||Political parties or self-nomination|
Direct popular vote|
sworn in by the Federal Assembly
|Term length||Six years, renewable once|
|Constituting instrument||Constitution of Austria|
Emperor of Austria |
(as head of state)
Karl Seitz |
as President of the Constituent National Assembly (4 March 1919)
as President of Austria (9 December 1920)
|Website||bundespraesident.at (in German)|
|This article is part of a series on the|
|Politics of Austria|
Though theoretically entrusted with great power by the Constitution of Austria, in practice the president is, for the most part, merely a ceremonial figurehead who acts mostly on the advice of the Chancellor and the Cabinet. The President of Austria is directly elected by universal suffrage every six years. The President's offices are located in the Leopoldine Wing of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna.
Many presidents have gained tremendous popularity while in office, and no incumbent has ever lost a bid for re-election, although Kurt Waldheim did not run for a second term in office. Five presidents have died in office. From 2004 to 2016, the office was occupied by social democrat Heinz Fischer. Since the establishment of direct election in 1951, only members of the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the People's Party (ÖVP) (and their predecessors) had been elected to the post (with the exception of Rudolf Kirchschläger, an independent endorsed by both the SPÖ and ÖVP) until the election of Green-endorsed Alexander Van der Bellen in 2016.
Prior to the collapse of the multinational Austro-Hungarian empire towards the end of World War I, what now is the Republic of Austria had been part of a monarchy with an emperor as its head of state and chief executive. The empire noticeably began to fracture in late 1917 and manifestly disintegrated into a number of independent nation states over the course of the following year.
Effective 21 October 1918, the Imperial Council parliamentarians representing the empire's ethnically German provinces formed a Provisional National Assembly for their paralyzed rump state and appointed veteran party leader Karl Seitz as one of their three largely coequal chairmen (21 October 1918 – 16 February 1919). As chairman, he also became a member (ex officio) of the Austrian State Council (Deutschösterreichischer Staatsrat). On 12 November 1918, the State Council collectively assumed the functions of head of state according to a resolution of the National Assembly.
On 11 November, Emperor Karl I announced "I relinquish every participation in the administration of the State. Likewise I have released the members of the Austrian Government from their offices." The next day, parliament proclaimed the Republic of German Austria. The assembly presidents (Seitz, Franz Dinghofer and Johann Nepomuk Hauser) continued to serve as acting heads of state until 4 March 1919, when the National Constituent Assembly collectively assumed these functions. Anton David (4 March 1919 – 5 March 1919) and Seitz (5 March 1919 – 10 November 1920) were the presidents of the National Constituent Assembly.
Karl Seitz performed the duties of head of state according to a law of 1 October 1920, which transferred these duties to the "former president of the National Constituent Assembly" for the period from 10 November 1920, to the day of swearing-in of the first Federal President (9 December 1920). Since Austria had not finalized its decision to structure itself as a federation prior to the formal promulgation of the Constitution of Austria on 1 October 1920, referring to Seitz as Federal President would have been inaccurate. Austria's first Bundespräsident proper thus was Michael Hainisch, Karl Seitz' immediate successor. In a related note, many popular sources quote some more or less random date between October 1918 and March 1919 as the beginning of Seitz' tenure. While most of them are merely misleading, others are plainly wrong: even though Seitz was appointed President of the Provisional National Assembly in October 1918, it would have been impossible for him to be President of Austria as of that month, the republic not even having been proclaimed by then.
The constitution originally defined Austria to be a parliamentary republic. Originally, the constitution was radically parliamentarian in character. The bicameral parliament, called the Federal Assembly, not only possessed legislative power, but also a good deal of executive power as well. The cabinet was appointed by the National Council rather than the president, who in turn was elected by the both houses of the Federal Assembly rather than the people. The President's term of office was four rather than six years. The president was answerable to the Federal Assembly and, in particular, had no authority to dissolve the National Council. Not even having much actual influence on the appointment of Constitutional Court justices, the President was confined to a nearly exclusively ceremonial role.
The role and nature of the President was the result of a compromise reached during the drafting of the constitution. The Social Democrats would have preferred that the president of the National Council serve as ex officio head of state, while the Christian Socials wanted a president with executive powers similar to those of the President of Germany. In the end, the framers enacted a compromise—while a separate presidency was created in accordance with the wishes of the Christian Socials, his role was almost entirely ceremonial to appease the Social Democrats. It was under this constitutional framework that Michael Hainisch and Wilhelm Miklas assumed office on 9 December 1920 and 10 December 1928, respectively.
The parliamentary system prescribed by the constitution was highly unpopular, however, with the authoritarian Heimwehr movement evolving during the 1920s. The Heimwehr was in favor of a system granting more powers to the president. On 7 December 1929, under growing pressure from the Heimwehr, the constitution was amended to give the president the sweeping executive and legislative authority he formally still has. It also called for the office to be filled by popular vote for a term of six years. The first election was scheduled for 1934. However, owing to the growing worldwide financial crisis, all parties agreed to suspend the election in favour of having Miklas reelected by parliament.
Only three years later, however, the Fatherland Front—an alliance of the Heimwehr and the Christian Social Party—tore down Austrian parliamentarism altogether, formally annulling the constitution on 1 May 1934. Though Austria now was a dictatorship in all but name, power was concentrated in the hands of the Chancellor, not those of the president. Wilhelm Miklas was stripped of the powers he'd gained in 1929, but agreed to act as a figurehead of institutional continuity anyway. He was not entirely powerless, however—during the Anschluss crisis, he provided some of the stiffest resistance to the Nazi demands. He technically remained in office until 13 March 1938, the day Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany and thus lost sovereignty.
When Austria re-established itself as an independent nation on 27 April 1945, the party leaders forming the provisional government decided not to frame a new constitution, reverting instead to that of 1920, as amended in 1929. Even though this revision was still somewhat controversial at that point, it was part of Austria's most recent constitutional framework, giving it at least some much-needed form of democratic legitimacy, and the party chairs were afraid that lengthy discussion might provoke the Red Army then in control of Vienna to barge in. The constitution thus reenacted effective 1 May therefore still included the provision calling for a president elected by popular vote. Following the November 1945 National Council elections, however, the National Assembly temporarily suspended this provision and installed Karl Renner as the President of Austria as of 20 December. The suspension in question seems to have been motivated mainly by lack of cash: no attempt was ever made to prolong it, and the benign septuagenarian Renner had been the universally respected provisional head of state anyway. Starting with the 1951 election of Renner's successor Theodor Körner, all presidents have in fact been elected by the people.
The President of Austria is elected by popular vote for a term of six years and is limited to two consecutive terms of office. Voting is open to all people entitled to vote in general parliamentary elections, which in practice means that suffrage is universal for all Austrian citizens over the age of sixteen that have not been convicted of a jail term of more than one year of imprisonment. (Even so, they regain the right to vote six months after their release from prison.)
Until 1 October 2011, with the exception of members of any ruling or formerly ruling dynastic houses (a measure of precaution against monarchist subversion, and primarily aimed at members of the House of Habsburg), anyone entitled to vote in elections to the National Council who is at least 35 years of age is eligible for the office of president. The exception of ruling or formerly ruling dynasties has been abolished meanwhile within the Wahlrechtsänderungsgesetz 2011 (Amendment of the law on the right to vote 2011) due to an initiative by Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen.
The President is elected under the two-round system. This means that if no candidate receives an absolute majority (i.e. more than 50%) of votes cast in the first round, then a second ballot occurs in which only those two candidates who received the greatest number of votes in the first round may stand. However the constitution also provides that the group that nominates one of these two candidates may instead nominate an alternative candidate in the second round. If there is only one candidate standing in a presidential election then the electorate is granted the opportunity to either accept or reject the candidate in a referendum.
While in office the President cannot belong to an elected body or hold any other occupation.
|Candidates (party membership)||First round||Second round (annulled)||Second round (re-run)|
|Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria)||1,499,971||35.1||2,220,654||49.7||2,124,661||46.2|
|Alexander Van der Bellen (The Greens)||913,218||21.3||2,251,517||50.3||2,472,892||53.8|
|Irmgard Griss (independent)||810,641||18.9|
|Rudolf Hundstorfer (Social Democratic Party of Austria)||482,790||11.3|
|Andreas Khol (Austrian People's Party)||475,767||11.1|
|Richard Lugner (independent)||96,783||2.3|
|Source: Bundesministerium für Inneres|
Oath of office
Article 62 of the Austrian Constitution provides that the President must take the following oath or affirmation of office in the presence of the Federal Assembly (although the addition of a religious asseveration is admissible):
- I solemnly promise that I shall faithfully observe the Constitution and all the laws of the Republic and shall fulfill my duty to the best of my knowledge and belief.
Powers and duties
Although granted powers comparable to that of the chief executive of a semi-presidential system, Austria actually operates under a parliamentary system of government, and the President is mainly a figurehead.
Officially, the President has free rein in appointing the Chancellor, federal cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, military officers, and most major bureaucrats. The President even has the authority to dissolve the National Council (the more powerful lower house of the Austrian parliament) at will. However, in practice, the President takes a mostly ceremonial role similar to that of a British monarch. By convention, Presidents are expected to be nonpartisan and to serve as symbols of national identity, and not to intervene in actual politics.
Chief appointments officer
The president appoints and swears in the Federal Chancellor and, upon the advice of the chancellor, the federal ministers. In theory, the President can name as chancellor, and by extension a federal minister, anyone who is eligible to serve in the National Council. However, it is impossible for a President to appoint a government entirely of his own choice or keep it in office against the will of parliament. The National Council can remove an individual minister or the entire Cabinet from office through a motion of no confidence. Also, a cabinet without enough support in the National Council could easily end up paralyzed. In practice, therefore, the Chancellor and the cabinet are responsible to the National Council. The Chancellor is usually the leader of the senior partner in the governing coalition, and cabinet composition reflects National Council election results rather than presidential election results.
The President also appoints and swears in judges, military officers, and federal civil servants. Responsibility for the less relevant of these appointments is largely conferred upon the federal ministers, but vacancies in top-level positions such as those of Constitutional Court justices are in fact filled by the president in person. Finally, the governors of Austria's federal states are sworn in by the President.
The President signs bills into law, and some Presidents have vetoed bills. A bill can be vetoed on the grounds that its genesis is in violation of the basic law. Adjudicating upon the constitutionality of the bill itself is the exclusive prerogative of the Constitutional Court.
- The President represents Austria in international relations. Actual foreign policy being cabinet matter, however, this responsibility is exclusively ceremonial. Mainly, the president accredits foreign ambassadors and symbolically acts as the host for state visits to Austria.
- The President is commander in chief of Austria's armed forces. This, too, is largely nominal, the actual head of command being the Minister of Defense.
- The President has the authority to dissolve the National Council (on advice of the Federal Government), or, in this case pending approval of the Federal Council, a state parliament, but exercising this power without good reason would be an unprecedented breach of constitutional convention. The President does need to give a reason, and may only use that reason once during his term of office.
- The President is a plenipotentiary authorized to rule by emergency decree in times of crisis. However, this is still a strong power and not a ceremonial responsibility.
- The President can, and frequently does, pardon criminals (this is also still a strong power and not a ceremonial responsibility like in parliamentary systems).
- The President confers the honours and decorations of the Austrian national honours system. From the day of being elected, he is entitled to wear the Grand Star of the Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria for life.
- The President has the right to legitimise children born out of wedlock, upon request by the parents. Since Austrian law, for (almost) all intents and purposes, no longer differentiates between legitimate and illegitimate children, this is no longer of any practical importance.
Impeachment and removal
The Austrian constitution provides that the federal president can be removed from office by a referendum initiated by the Federal Assembly. The Federal Assembly can also impeach the president before the Constitutional Court. However, neither of these courses has ever been taken.
To hold a referendum on the deposition of the president the National Council must first pass a resolution requiring that the Federal Assembly be convened to consider the matter. This resolution must be endorsed by two-thirds of all votes cast in a meeting at which at least one half of the total number of members are present. If the resolution is passed the president is immediately suspended from the exercise of Presidential powers and the Federal Assembly is convoked by the federal chancellor. A referendum may then be held on the demand of the assembly. If a proposal, in a referendum, to depose the president is rejected then the President is deemed to have been re-elected, the National Council is dissolved and a general election must be held.
The Constitution of Austria makes no provision for an office of Vice President. Should the president fall ill, or for some other reason be temporarily incapacitated, presidential powers and responsibilities devolve upon the Chancellor. Should the President die, be impeached, be removed from office as a result of impeachment or recall, or for some other reason be unable to fulfill the duties of office for a period of more than twenty days, presidential powers and responsibilities devolve upon the college of the three presidents of the National Council.
List of Presidents of Austria
Living former Presidents
There is one living former Austrian President:
- "Kundmachung des Anpassungsfaktors" (PDF) (in German). Website des Rechnungshofes. 14 December 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 April 2012.
- Maurice Duverger, 1980: A New Political System Model: Semi-Presidential Government. European Journal of Political Research 8(2), 165-187. (168: "Figurehead presidency;" 184: "In Austria, Ireland and Iceland, figurehead presidents play a far smaller role than that allowed by their constitutional prerogatives.")
- Ceren Senkul, 2017-10-15: Austria's snap election: Everything you need to know. Sky News
- Sean Sheehan, 2003: Austria, 2nd edition. Marshall Cavendish. (28: "In reality, the president is more of a figurehead and usually follows the suggestions of the chancellor in making important decisions.")
- Sputnik News Staff, 2017-01-16: Alexander Van der Bellen Sworn in as President of Austria. Sputnik News.
- Owen Jones, 2016-05-24: The far right's narrow defeat in Austria should be a wake-up call for Europe. The Guardian.
- The Local Staff, 2016-04-26: What is the role of the President in Austria? The Local. ("The President is an authority in reserve. It can in some way be compared to the Queen in Great Britain. The Austrian President probably has more of a busy daily schedule that the Queen but lots of the political power is symbolic power.")
- Marcelo Jenny, 2016: Austria's presidential election. London School of Economics. ("The Austrian president [...] is often been described as a figurehead and “state notary” who signs bills passed by parliament into law.")
- Reuters, 2017-09-12: Austrian president to insist on pro-EU government after election. Business Insiders. ("he is mainly a figurehead")
- "Emperor Karl I's Abdication Proclamation, 11 November 1918". firstworldwar.com. Retrieved 6 February 2014.
- Wahlrechtsänderungsgesetz 2011 (in German) https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/Dokumente/BgblAuth/BGBLA_2011_I_43/BGBLA_2011_I_43.pdf