Alexander Van der Bellen's First Term in Office: A Presidency With Many Ups and Downs

PeoplePoliticians ♦ Published: August 17, 2022; 09:30 ♦ (Vindobona)

A final chapter of the first term of the Austrian President is approaching. On 9 October, Alexander Van der Bellen will contest Austria's 14th federal presidential election and will attempt to defend his office. At Vindobona, we take this opportunity to look back on the first term of the President.

The first term of office of the still incumbent Austrian President is drawing to a close. / Picture: © / Peter Lechner / HBF

The first term of office of the still incumbent Austrian President is drawing to a close. On 9 October, Alexander Van der Bellen will face his competitors in Austria's 14th federal presidential election and try to defend his office in the election. We at Vindobona take this as an opportunity to review the first term of office of the President.

Alexander Van der Bellen was elected Federal President of Austria on 26 January 2017, beating his main rival Norbert Hofer only in the second attempt after the result of the first run-off election was declared invalid.

Regardless of this scandal, the world still seemed to be in order at the time. In many places in Austria, people were discussing the usefulness of a president and many voices labelled the political function as obsolete and doubted whether Austria needed a president at all.

Van der Bellen's political post was considered uneventful and boring - how wrong they were.

Right in his first year as president, Alexander Van der Bellen faced new elections in October 2017. Previously, the 25th legislative period, which would have regularly ended in autumn 2018, had been shortened by a decision of the National Council.

At the time, he called on the ruling parties to use the time to bridge the gap to the new election wisely and to work together cooperatively: "So now a shaken amount of state political responsibility is needed from all parties and parliamentary factions, especially of course from the two governing parties that will lead the government business until the new election."

Chancellor Christian Kern lost the majority in parliament in these with his party the SPÖ and had to concede defeat to the ÖVP under Sebastian Kurz, who was entrusted by Alexander Van der Bellen with forming the government and was finally sworn in as chancellor at the end of 2017.

Two politically exciting, but for President Van der Bellen relatively uneventful years followed. The new government divided opinion, but Van der Bellen generally stayed out of domestic affairs - this was not his field of activity.

In May 2019, a domestic political earthquake occurred - the so-called "Ibiza video" was published. On it, the then Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache was seen meeting with his party colleague Johann Gudenus in Ibiza together with an alleged Russian oligarch niece. In it, both show their willingness to engage in corruption, circumvent party financing laws and covertly take control of non-party media.

The government broke as a result of this scandal and new elections were held once again. Van der Bellen removed the members of the federal government from office after the National Council had passed a vote of no confidence in the government the day before.

Addressing the situation, he said: "The pictures that have reached us since yesterday show a disturbing moral picture that does not do justice to our country, to our Austria. They are shameful pictures. And no one should have to be ashamed of Austria. I would like to say this in all clarity: We are not like that! Austria is simply not like that!"

After removing the original government from office, he appointed a temporary interim government with Brigitte Bierlein as the new chancellor to take over until the date of new elections.

"It is fundamental in our constitution that at the point where we are now, the Federal President has to choose a person to be Chancellor or Chancelloress. Brigitte Bierlein will be appointed by me as Federal Chancellor of the Republic of Austria," he said at the time.

At the end of September 2019, another election was held and Van der Bellen vowed to form the second government under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, this time together with the Greens.

Then, at the beginning of 2020, the catastrophe began - the Covid-19 virus spread in Europe and also in Austria. Unprecedented insecurity spread through the country and Van der Bellen, as head of the state of Austria, was called upon to reassure the population.

"We have all the prerequisites to slow down the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible. If everyone really helps. Because the more we can delay the spread, the better it is for the particularly vulnerable people in our society," he said at the time, unaware that two difficult years would follow.

In the meantime, domestic politics continued unabated. Sebastian Kurz, the then Federal Chancellor of Austria, was confronted with massive corruption allegations in October 2021 and was subsequently forced to resign from office and quit politics. Van der Bellen appointed Alexander Schallenberg and a few months later Karl Nehammer as the new chancellor - for the time being the last change in the Austrian chancellorship.

At the beginning of the last year of his first term as Federal President, Alexander Van der Bellen was confronted with the war in Ukraine. The unjustified invasion of the neighbouring country by Russian troops had led to a political and economic earthquake around the world. Van der Bellen condemned the aggression in Ukraine from the very beginning and called on the Russian ruler Putin to refrain from warmongering.

When asked why the war broke out, he replied: "Because a few hundred kilometres to the east of here there is a dictator who cannot stand the fact that people in Europe live in individual freedom and independence. Who talks about the effeminate, decadent West, who deeply despises our way of life. Because he can't stand that we want to live in a society where every human being is of equal value. That is the truth and that is the heart of the matter. Because the Russian president cannot stand this, he has started a war. He is dropping bombs on cities and villages, driving millions of people to flee. Tens of thousands have already lost their lives."

Contesting the next election

In May 2022, the time finally came. Alexander Van der Bellen announced that he would run again.

The current president, who enjoys great popularity, can in any case count on good chances, since so far none of the major parties wants to put up an opposing candidate. However, whether he will actually make it to a second term will be decided in October.

Presidential Chancellery of Austria