Politics For Members

Why it really matters who the new governor of Lower Austria will be

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected] • 30 Jan, 2023 Updated Mon 30 Jan 2023 16:33 CEST
Why it really matters who the new governor of Lower Austria will be
Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig joined Interior Minister Gerhard Karner and Lower Austrian Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner in opening the new police operational training center in Donaustadt, August 25th, 2022. (Copyright: C.Jobst/PID)

Lower Austria went to the polls to vote for a new regional parliament and, ultimately, a new governor. Who will that person be and what exactly do governors do in Austria?


What's happening?

Austrians in the province of Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) went to the polls on January 29th to form a new regional government, electing a parliament and, ultimately, a new governor. But how important are Austrian governors in political matters anyway?

The official results of Sunday's elections are not out yet, but projections show that, although the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) was able to hold on to first place in Lower Austria, incumbent Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner suffered heavy losses.

READ ALSO: Five things you need to know about the Lower Austria elections

With 39.9 percent of the vote and 9.7 percentage points less compared to the previous election, the centre-right ÖVP under Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner achieved its worst election result in Lower Austria in the Second Republic.

The result of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) with its top candidate Franz Schnabl was also seen as a defeat: they received 20.6 percent of the vote - 3.3 percentage points less than in the previous election. 

The Freedom Party's (FPÖ) performance was quite different: the far-right party won 24.2 percent of the vote , the best result ever for the FPÖ in Austria's largest province.


What powers do governors have?

The Landeshauptmann, or Landeshauptfrau, is the head of a provincial government and the province's highest official. In comparison, a governor is like the chancellor of a region in Austria, being elected indirectly by a parliament (except for Vienna, where the municipal council elects a mayor that is also a governor). 

They are also equivalent to the minister-presidents (state premiers) of German states.

While the Austrian state is responsible for essential tasks in the federal legislation, foreign and defence policy and ordinary jurisdiction, the provinces have the right to their own legislation and state enforcement, according to the City of Vienna.

Lower Austria's government adds that "all matters not expressly declared federal by the Austrian Federal Constitution fall within the independent sphere of action of the provinces".

In practice, this ends up giving states plenty of power. For example, during the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government instituted minimum standards throughout the country, but the provinces could add their own regulations. 

READ ALSO: Which Austrian states offer free public kindergartens?

Vienna famously took the "Viennese way", introducing stricter restrictions, including an FFP2 mask mandate, long after other provinces dropped those requirements.

Another recent example of how provinces can have their own set of legislation in important matters is the offers for childcare in Austria. 

By federal law, part-time daycare is free of charge for children from the age of five throughout Austria. However, the provincial governments can expand that offer, and many have. Burgenland and Vienna, for example, have all-day care free of charge for children up to the age of six. 

Most recently, Salzburg has also expanded its minimum requirement offer to have free part-time kindergarten care for children aged from three to six years old, as The Local reported.


So, who will be the governor of Lower Austria?

As mentioned above, a province governor is elected similarly to the chancellor. This means voters will choose the parties they want to have seats in the state parliament. So, for example, ÖVP will get more seats in the house than any other party but not a majority.

After the parliament is elected, its members then choose a governor. In practice, since the parties already run with a suggested government candidate, people who vote for them also know which person they elect for the executive position.

In the case of ÖVP, incumbent Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner was the party’s choice for the top state job. Had the centre-right won more than 50 percent of the votes, they would be able to elect Mikl-Leitner as the new governor once again without discussing it with other parties.

But since it didn’t, the ÖVP now will start talks with other parties looking to form a majority government and elect her – plus ensure that by having a clear majority in the state parliament, they will be able to pass legislation.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Austrians elect their chancellor?

Experts see a coalition of the centre-right ÖVP and centre-left SPÖ as most likely, the newspaper Die Presse reported. But of course if this happens, there will be pushback from the FPÖ, which is seeing increasing support. Political expert Thomas Hofer said it would be a "coalition that the FPÖ can then portray as a 'coalition of losers'".

This means that the more likely scenario is that the incumbent governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner will be reelected but, this time, with a junior coalition partner - probably the left-leaning SPÖ.


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