Austrian presidential elections: What exactly does the president do?
Austria has reelected Alexander Van der Bellen for a new six-year term as president. What is the actual role of the president, when the country already has a chancellor?
Austria’s presidential election took on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president. The current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who ran for his second term, was voted for another six years in the position.
Austrian citizens aged 16 and over can vote in the elections, and the Federal President is eligible for up to two elected terms (each lasting for six years).
A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.
Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.
What does the Austrian President do?
The Federal President is the chief diplomat in Austria – essentially the head of state of the Austrian Republic and the representation of democracy in the country.
The president is responsible for protecting democracy in Austria, providing moral support to the country, assisting in integrating minorities into the political process, and swearing in and dismissing parliament.
To become the president of Austria, candidates should have an extensive political background and a non-partisan (unbiased) approach to politics.
In some ways, Austria’s president is compared to the role of Queens and Kings in the UK and any political power is often viewed as symbolic. For example, the president is not expected to intervene in the daily running of government but can make an appeal in certain situations.
According to the president's office, "The Federal President is at the service of all Austrian citizens. He is the only state representative on the federal level to be elected directly by the citizens. This places the President in a strong position within the constitutional framework, as he is backed by a majority of the electorate."
Austria's Chancellor, who leads the government, is elected by a parliamentary vote following national elections.
The Federal President represents Austria internationally and can direct the implementation of treaties by issuing ordinances.
As the representative of Austria, the Federal President is expected to make statements and announcements in historical times, such as Van der Bellen's statement honouring Queen Elizabeth II after her death.
The president also has powers regarding federal legislation, including the ability to convoke and dissolve the National Council (Austria's parliament). They can also order referenda and public consultations.
Regarding the government, the Federal President must appoint, swear in and dismiss Federal Ministers - though this is usually done at the request of the ruling parties and chancellors. They also swear in governors of Austria's federal states and have the power to dissolve state parliaments.
Crises and the Armed forces
The Federal President can remove the seat of the highest federal authorities from Vienna to another location within the federal territory for the duration of extraordinary circumstances. Additionally, they can convene the National Council at a place within the federal territory other than Vienna for the course of extraordinary circumstances.
The president also has the authority to issue provisional law-amending ordinances.
The Federal President serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Armed Forces and can appoint army officers.
There are several duties of the Federal President regarding the judiciary system. Besides appointing and swearing in judges, public prosecutors and other court members have to "enforce the judgements of the Constitutional Court".
Most notably, the Federal President has certain rights of pardon and the right to quash proceedings in individual cases of offences subject to prosecution in court. For example, they have the authority to stop criminal proceedings and mitigate and commute sentences imposed by the courts, among others.
Finally, the Federal President can also grant several honorary privileges and awards.
Can the Federal President refuse to certify federal laws?
According to the office of the president: "The Federal President certifies that laws have been passed following the Constitution. If the resolution has been passed in a manifestly unconstitutional manner, he must refuse to certify it."
In cases of doubt, the president is also supposed to certify federal laws in order to allow for a subsequent review by the Constitutional Court.
Can the Federal President dismiss the Federal Government?
Technically, yes. Politically, the matter is more delicate.
The constitution mandates the president then to appoint a new federal government, which must present itself to the National Council within a week. After that, the National Council can express a vote of no confidence in the new federal government.
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This means that the Federal President could dismiss the federal government, but politically they have to consider the majority situation in the National Council.
Additionally, the Federal President can dismiss the Federal Chancellor on his own initiative but can only dismiss a minister after a request by the Chancellor.