The President of Austria (German: Bundespräsident der Republik Österreich, lit. 'Federal President of the Republic of Austria') is the head of state of the Austrian Republic. Though theoretically entrusted with great power by the Constitution, in practice the President is largely a ceremonial and symbolic figurehead.
The President is directly elected by universal suffrage every six years and can continuously remain in office for twelve years. The President is – along with the Ministers, State Secretaries and members of state cabinets – a supreme executive organ. One of the best known and most important presidential tasks is the appointment of the Chancellor and, upon his advice, the other members of Cabinet.
The President ranks first in Austria's order of precedence, being ahead of the President of the National Council and the Chancellor. Presidential workplaces are located in the Leopoldine Wing of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna.
The office of President was formed by the Constitution on 1 October 1920. The constitutional amendment of 1929 established that the President was to be elected by the people. Nevertheless, the re-election of President Wilhelm Miklas in 1931 was conducted by the Federal Assembly. Even Karl Renner was still elected by the Federal Assembly in 1945. Ultimately, Theodor Körner became the first President to be elected by the people in 1951.
Most presidents have gained tremendous popularity while in office, and no President has ever lost a bid for re-election, although Kurt Waldheim did not run for a second term. Five Presidents have died in office. From 2004 to 2016, the office was occupied by social democrat Heinz Fischer. Since the formation of the popular vote in 1951, only members and nominees of the Social Democratic Party and the People's Party had been elected President, until the election of the Green-endorsed incumbent 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 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 became an ex officio member of the 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 Charles 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 Constituent National Assembly collectively assumed these functions. Seitz (5 March 1919 – 10 November 1920) was the only President of the Constituent National 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 inaugurating the first 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 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 serve as Bundespräsident, since the republic has not even been proclaimed back-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 president was elected by both houses of the Federal Assembly for a term of four years. He was answerable to the Federal Assembly, and his role was almost entirely ceremonial. In particular, he did not have the power to appoint the government, a power reserved to the National Council, and had no authority to dissolve the National Council. He did not even have much actual influence on the appointment of Constitutional Court justices.
The role and nature of the president was the result of a compromise reached during the drafting of the constitution. The Christian Socials wanted a president with executive powers similar to those of the president of Germany. However, the Social Democrats, fearing that such a president would become an "ersatz emperor," would have preferred that the president of the National Council double as head of state. In the end, the framers created a separate presidency in accordance with the wishes of the Christian Socials. However, to appease the Social Democrats, he lacked even nominal executive authority. 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 sweeping executive and legislative powers. Although most of these powers were to be exercised through the ministers, on paper the president now had powers equivalent to those of presidents in presidential systems. It also called for the office to be filled by popular vote for a term of six years. He also had the power to appoint the cabinet. 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. It was replaced by an authoritarian/corporatist document that concentrated power 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 state 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. The party leaders were also afraid that lengthy discussion might provoke the Red Army then in control of Vienna to barge in and impose Communist rule. The constitution thus reenacted effective 1 May therefore still included the provision calling for popular election of the president. 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 position.
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):
Legality of acts
Acts of the president are referred to as resolutions. Most of them require countersignature. While so-called appointment certificates are issued when appointing a new government, the dismissal of the government does not require a written form, but merely has to be brought to the attention of the persons concerned. The government can therefore also be dismissed against its will.
Although the constitution vests the president with great power, his acts are bound to proposals and countersignatures, if the constitution doesn't say otherwise. This means that the president can only act on the on advice of the Government (or a Minister). In addition, most acts of the president are only valid if they are countersigned by the Chancellor or by the Minister responsible. This considerably restricts the possibilities of the president to act on his own.
This however, also means that the president does not have to accept a proposal from the government either. He could even replace the Chancellor, to receive proposals such at will, and dissolve the National Council before it can initiate a vote of no confidence against the new Chancellor. So far – although this would not be unconstitutional – this has never been done for real-political reasons.
The following acts of the president do not require a proposal:
- The appointment of the Chancellor
- The dismissal of the Chancellor or the entire government
- The appointment of a provisional government
- The inauguration of the Chancellor, ministers, state secretaries, governors etc
- The prevailing doctrine and practice also excludes mere representation tasks from propositions
The following acts of the president require no countersignature:
- The dismissal of the government
- The dismissal of an individual minister (required a proposal of the Chancellor instead)
- The convocation of an extraordinary meeting of the National Council
- Directives within the execution of findings of the Constitutional Court
Powers and duties
Presidential powers and responsibilities are primarily defined by the Federal Constitutional Law, additional powers may be established by federal statute, judicial interpretations and legal precedents. While the Austrian political system as a whole can often be compared with that of Germany, the Austrian presidency can hardly be compared with the German one, but rather much more with the British monarchy – since both are head of state, appoint the head of government and their cabinet, can dismiss the head of government and their cabinet, can dissolve the parliament, appoint the highest-ranking government officials, sign bills into law and are the military commander-in-chief of their country.
The President appoints the Chancellor and, upon his advice, the other members of the cabinet as well as the State Secretaries. The President is not bound to any legal provisions or specifications when appointing the Chancellor. However, since the National Council is empowered to impeach and remove individual members of cabinet or even the entire cabinet at any time, through a motion of no confidence, it is de facto impossible for a President to keep a government in office against the will of the National Council.
Until the year 2000, convention called for the President to entrust the leader of the largest party with the formation of a new cabinet. As the cabinet formation of 2000 has shown, the President cannot enforce the existence of a minority government. In practice, the initiative of forming a new cabinet can therefore entirely be subject to interested parties. Since every member of cabinet is appointed by the President (on advice of the Chancellor), the President can yet always refuse to appoint a nominated Minister or State Secretary.
So far, there have been only three cases in which a President declined to appoint a nominee for cabinet. Karl Renner rejected a Minister suspected of corruption for re-appointment. Thomas Klestil declined to appoint two ministers; one of the them having been involved in a criminal case and the other had been frequently noticed for extremist and xenophobic statements during the election campaign. In 1953, President Theodor Körner straight up discarded the demands of Chancellor Leopold Figl to appoint a cabinet with the participation of the Federation of Independents.
The President can dismiss the Chancellor or the entire cabinet at their own discretion. However, the dismissal of individual cabinet members requires the advice of the Chancellor. So far, the dismissal of an entire cabinet against its will has never occurred. President Wilhelm Miklas did not make use of this power when Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß overturned the Constitution to establish the Federal State of Austria.
The President may dissolve the National Council at the request of cabinet, but only once for the same reason. The legal consequences of a dissolution of the National Council by the President differ from those of a parliamentary self-dissolution. If the President terminates the legislative period, the National Council is immediately dissolved and thus incapacitated. However, the Standing Subcommittee of the National Council's Principal Committee remains as an emergency organ until the newly elected National Council convenes. Prior to that, the President may issue emergency decrees on the request of the government and with the consent of the standing subcommittee of the principal committee. In case of self-dissolution, the old National Council meets until a new one is elected.
So far only Wilhelm Miklas has made use of the dissolution right, after the Christian Social Party had lost its coalition partner and thus the majority in parliament. Since the following legislative election was not in the interest of the government, the instrument of presidential dissolution of parliament was not applied.
The president can dissolve every Landtag (state legislature) at the request of the government and with the consent of the Federal Council. However, he may only do so once for the same reason – as with the dissolution of the National Council. The Federal Council must agree to the dissolution with a two-thirds majority. The representatives of the state whose Landtag is to be dissolved may not take part at the vote.
The dissolution of a Landtag is regarded as a direct intervention of the federal government in the autonomy of the states. As in the case of the dissolution of the National Council by the president, a dissolved Landtag is considered incapable of action until its newly elected successor meets. This power has never been used by any president yet.
As "state notary" and in the course of the constitutional formation of laws, the president signs bills into law. If this is the case, he must sign. Whether and to what extent the president has a substantive examination competence with regard to the constitutional conformity of a law is controversial. The prevailing opinion assumes in case of severe and obvious unconstitutionality of the submitted act that the president has to deny the validation. This has happened only once, when Heinz Fischer refused to sign a law containing a retrospective criminal provision. A refusal to sign, despite of the law being constitutional, could lead to an indictment at the Constitutional Court.
The president represents the Austria Republic and concludes international treaties, of which some require the approval of the National Council. When Austria joined the EU, there was a disagreement between president Thomas Klestil and chancellor Franz Vranitzky, who may represent Austria in the European Council. Materially, the legal view of the chancellor has prevailed, the president however, was of the opinion that he had only delegated this right to the chancellor.
The President is authorized to rule by emergency decree in times of crisis. The constitution states:
Such emergency decrees do not affect federal constitutional law or other important legal provisions. As soon as the National Council is able to convene again, active emergency decrees are to be confirmed by it, and may be invalidated. The power to rule by emergency decrees has never been used yet.
The president is entrusted with the execution of findings of the Constitutional Court in cases that are not subject to ordinary courts. The request for execution is lodged by the Constitutional Court itself. The constitution provides the head of state with extensive enforcement rights. Execution jurisdiction can encompass state and federal authorities as well as a state or the republic in its entirety. Therefore the president can issue direct orders to all federal and state authorities, including the armed forces and the police. If a federal organ or the republic as a whole are affected, the president's directives do not require countersignature.
The president appoints the federal officials, including military officers, judges and other functionaries. These powers can be, and usually are, delegated to the ministers. Supreme organs, however, are appointed by the president himself.
The president also appoints the justices of the Constitutional Court – the Constitutional Court's president, Vice president, six further members and three substitute members on advice of the government; three members and two substitute members on advice of the National Council; three members and one substitute member are nominated by the Federal Council.
The President is the commander-in-chief (Oberbefehlshaber) of the Austrian Armed Forces (Bundesheer) and thus its (de jure) ultimate authority, theoretically outranking every other military officer (including the Minister of Defense). While the role’s detailed powers remain unclear, it could be regarded as a very powerful reserve right. A presidential military order is not bound to a proposal or countersignature.
No President has ever made use of this power. Day-to-day military affairs are overseen and administered by the Minister of Defense, who is simply termed "commander" (Befehlshaber) of the armed forces and considered its de facto highest authority. Key decisions on the use of the armed forces are usually made by the Government.
As commander-in-chief the President succeeds the Emperor in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Military. After the fall of the monarchy in 1918 the Principal Committee of the National Council functioned as paramount decision-making authority of the then-newly established Bundesheer. In 1929, the Christian Social Party transferred supreme command over the armed forces from the Principal Committee to the President through a constitutional amendment, in order to advance authoritarianism in Austria.
The President can always issue exceptional recruitment measures and possesses an extensive right to be informed.
The president also holds many other rights, which are typically part of the duties of a head of state. These include, for example, the creation and awarding of honorary and professional titles, and the de facto meaningless right to declare illegitimate children to legitimate children at the request of the parents. Among the presidential rights, which were formed from simple federal laws, is the "Promotio sub auspiciis Praesidentis rei publicae", in which PhD students with extraordinary credentials receive a ring of honor from the president. In addition, the president has the right to shut down criminal proceedings (right of abolition) or to pardon prisoners. According to the case law of the Constitutional Court, pardon acts of the president do not only undo the punishment itself, but also the associated blame. Accordingly, a disciplinary process may no longer rely on such a conviction: "The repayment of a conviction granted by the grace of the president has the consequence that this conviction may no longer be considered in case of disciplinary proceedings".
Immunity, removal and representation
The president is enjoys full immunity from judicial or any type of official prosecution during his incumbency. The president may only be prosecuted with the explicit assent of the Federal Assembly. If an authority intends to prosecute the president, it must address a "request for extradition" before the National Council. If the National Council consents a prosecution, the chancellor shall convene the Federal Assembly, which will then decide over the extradition.
The president can be sued at the Constitutional Court for "violating the constitution". This process requires a resolution by either the National Council or the Federal Council; upon such a decision, the chancellor shall convene the Federal Assembly, which will thereupon decide over the indictment. The vote of the Federal Assembly shall take place in the presence of at least half of the members of the National Council and Federal Council; a two-thirds majority is required.
The president can only be deposed by the people through a plebiscite. This requires an application of the National Council to convene the Federal Assembly – such a resolution is formed with the same quorums as when changing constitutional law, which means it requires the presence of at least half of the deputies and a two-thirds majority. If the National Council has concluded such a resolution, the chancellor shall convene the Federal Assembly, which then decides over the request. Already from the National Council's request to convene the Federal Assembly on, the president is "prevented from exercising his office" and is represented by the three Presidents of the National Council. If the people reject the president to be deposed, the referendum is treated as new election and causes the immediate dissolution of the National Council; even in such a case, the president's term of office may not exceed twelve years in total.
The constitution 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 to be unable to fulfill the duties of office for a period of more than twenty days, presidential powers and responsibilities devolve upon the Presidium of the National Council (consisting of the three Presidents of the National Council).
The president is particularly protected by special criminal law provisions. This includes in particular § 249 StGB, "Violence and dangerous threat against the president". The offense belongs to the fifteenth section of the Criminal Code, "Attacks on supreme state organs":
The insult of the president in contrast to most offenses is not a private prosecution, but an authorization offense. Hence, the president does not have to act as a prosecutor in person, but delegate the right to prosecute to the prosecutor's office. An example of this is the so-called "Hump-Dump affair". The title "Bundespräsident" (=president) may – even with additions or in context with other designations – not be used by anyone other than the incumbent president, because of him being protected by law.