What is the Role of the Office of the Federal President in the Austrian Political System?

More+ ♦ Published: October 6, 2022; 21:55 ♦ (Vindobona)

This Sunday, eligible voters in Austria will elect the head of state of their country, the Federal President. But how exactly is the political role of the Federal President expressed in the Austrian political system? What is the story behind the office? Where exactly can the Republic of Austria be placed on the axis between Parliamentarism and Presidentialism? Read on to find out the answers!

Many things changed in the classic ways in the office of the President during President Alexander Van der Bellen's term of office. / Picture: © Österreichische Präsidentschaftskanzlei / Peter Lechner/HBF

Austria is a federal state in which the Federal President is elected directly by the people. Discussions flare up again and again in public debates about the political role of the Federal President in the Austrian political system, the length of the term of office, certain political remnants from the time of the monarchy, or the period between World War I and World War II.

Austria's Federal President and his powers

The Federal President is given by the Constitution quite some competencies. The Federal President can dissolve the Austrian Parliament (Nationalrat / National Council), represent the Republic of Austria to the outside world, has state personnel powers, makes the constitutional enactment of laws and has the supreme command over the federal army.

The office of the federal president in Austria has some powerful means of intervening in politics, but these have remained largely unused. Also, most of the powers of the head of state are subject to limitations and make the office heavily dependent on the respective government and the National Council. The limited real resources, such as financial and bureaucratic resources, make it difficult for the president to maneuver.

The Republic of Austria is very parliamentary and has a federal chancellor who is the head of government. represents. Most of the powers in the state lie with the National Council, the Federal Government, or with the Federal Chancellor. In this triad, there was hardly any room for the federal president.

However, the most important role that the Federal President plays is in the formation of the government. He can appoint the government and Chancellor, but also dismiss them. The dismissal of the federal government, on the other hand, depends on the parliament.

Yet, the federal presidents in Austria's history have tended to keep their rights, competencies and powers rather in the background. No wonder, since most of the powers, granted to the federal president in the 1929 version of the Federal Constitutional Law were made heavily dependent on the government and parliament. Active political action was thus left to the government and the parliament.

History of the office

According to experts, the classic role of the president was for a long time, the so-called "authority in the reserve". The incumbents consciously assumed this role and usually had mostly no ambitions to interfere in the day-to-day political affairs.This is not surprising, because of the history of Austria.

Another important point is the history of the office. The office of the Federal President was established by the Federal Constitutional Act of 1920. Out of fear of a restoration of a House of Habsburg over the Federal President, most of the powers for the office were kept low, he could neither appoint nor dismiss the government. However, in 1929 there was an amendment to the Federal Constitutional Law in which new powers were assigned to the head of state. There have been no significant reforms to the office to date. The first use of these new powers, the appointment of a government without a parliamentary majority and the dissolution of the National Council led to a political disaster that did enormous damage to the democracy of the first Austrian Republic. This disaster led to a civil war between the Austrian Conservative Party and the Austrian Social democrats.

After the Second World War, the second Austrian Republic was founded and Austria still had a very strong dominance of the two major parties, ÖVP and SPÖ, and a generally stronger presence of the parties within society than in some other countries. Since these two major parties have long had little confidence in each other, the office of the federal president had always to involve certain independence from both parties.

The candidates for the federal presidency were usually nominated by the parties. However, key personalities and leaders were not nominated for election, as in other democratic countries, but rather people who already belonged to the old cadre and whose influence within the party had already diminished considerably, sometimes more or less.

In addition the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany and the search for the strong man. These caused the incumbents after 1945 to have a rather reserved understanding of their office.

Modern approach of the Austrian President

As explained, the office of the Federal President is very much shaped by its history and is given a special role in the Constitution. In addition, Austria's presidents have always exercised restraint as a rule.

In the recent history of the republic, however, it came to a stronger presence by the Federal President in current and active political events. When the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition formed a government in 2000, for example, Thomas Klestil rejected two designated ministers and imposed a preamble on the government's coalition agreement.

For the still-acting Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen, this even changed much more as reported by Vindobona.org. At first, he rejected two ministers and became very involved in the formation of the first Kurz government.

After the infamous "Ibiza Video" and removing the original Kurz government from office in May 2019, he appointed a temporary interim government with Brigitte Bierlein as the new chancellor to take over until the date of the new elections. 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.

At the beginning of 2020, the Covid-19 virus spread throughout Europe and Austria. As head of the state of Austria, Van der Bellen was called upon to reassure the populace after unprecedented uncertainty spread throughout the country.

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.

However, such behavior by the federal president is the exception rather than the rule in Austria's history. Especially since elections in Austria no longer lead to the clearest majority governments or the classic coalition governments, there is more for the Federal President to do.

As experts write, this could lead to a situation where the head of state might not insist on relinquishing his role at all but instead step into the "constitutionally ascribed role" to him. If this happens, the respective officeholder would have to set important impulses and signs, as well as be personally very involved in the formation of the government.

Austria's political system is a system with presidential elements but is otherwise rather parliamentary. Whether reforms are needed that give the office more powers or even take them away or even take away competencies, only time will tell. The execution and role of the office have adapted well to the political conditions of the second republic and have handled impending crises well, but have not caused disasters as they did in the first as in the first republic. The office of the federal president has proven itself, as it is at present, has proved stable.