President of Austria: Wikis

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Federal President of Austria
Flag of Austria (state).svg
Flag of the Federal Republic of Austria
Incumbent
Heinz Fischer

since 8 July 2004
Residence Hofburg Imperial Palace
Term length six years
(renewable once;
terms may be consecutive)
Inaugural holder Karl Seitz
Karl Renner
Formation 5 March 1919
20 December 1945
Website www.hofburg.at

The Austrian Federal President (German language: Österreichischer Bundespräsident) is the federal head of state of Austria. Though theoretically entrusted with great power by the constitution, in practice the President acts, for the most part, merely as a ceremonial figurehead. The President of Austria is directly elected by universal adult suffrage once in every six years. His or her offices are located in the Leopoldine Wing of the Hofburg Imperial Palace, in Vienna.

Many former Presidents have gained tremendous popularity while in office, and no incumbent has ever lost a bid for re-election. Since 2004 the office has been occupied by Heinz Fischer.

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Election

Austria

This article is part of the series:
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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.)

With the exception of members of the House of Habsburg, who are still barred as a measure of precaution against monarchist subversion, 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 President is elected under the Two Round system. This means that if no candidate receives an absolute majority (i.e. 50% plus one vote) 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 nominate an alternative candidate in his or her place 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 him or her in a referendum.

While in office the President cannot belong to an elected body or hold any other occupation. Article 62 of the constitution provides that the president must take the following oath or affirmation of office in the presence of the Federal Assembly (although the insertion of religious references into the wording is permissible):

I solemnly promise that I shall faithfully observe the Constitution and all the laws of the Republic and shall fulfill my duty to the best of my knowledge and belief.

Responsibilities

Though technically wielding powers comparable to that of the chief executives of presidential systems, in practice Austria operates under a parliamentary system of government, and the Federal President is more a figurehead than an actual head of government.

In constitutional theory, the President has free rein in appointing the head of the federal cabinet and, by extension, free rein in appointing federal cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, military officers, and most major bureaucrats. The President even has the authority to dissolve the National Council (the more powerful lower house of the Austrian parliament) more or less at will. However, as a practical matter, all the President ever does is fulfill purely ceremonial duties: much like British monarchs, holders of the office of President of Austria are bound by constitutional convention to aim at being nonpartisan custodians of political morality, to serve as symbols of national identity, and not to intervene in actual politics.

The Leopoldine Wing of Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna: home to the offices of the Federal President.
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Chief appointments officer

The President appoints and swears in the Federal Chancellor and, upon the advice of the Chancellor, the federal ministers. While the President technically could assign the office of Chancellor and, by extension, the offices of the federal ministers to whomever he or she sees fit, the National Council can divest individual ministers or the cabinet as a whole from office through a motion of no confidence. Also, even a cabinet not dismissed but merely not supported by the National Council could easily end up paralyzed. In practice, therefore, the cabinet's composition reflects National Council election rather than presidential election results, the president customarily assigning the office of chancellor to the National Council majority leader.

The President also appoints and swears in judges, military officers, and federal civil servants. Responsibility for the less relevant of these appointments is largely conferred upon the federal ministers, but vacancies in top-level positions such as those of Constitutional Court justices are in fact filled by the President in person. Finally, the governors of Austria's federal states are sworn in by the president.

Legislation

The President signs bills into law. The president does not have the power to veto bills, his or her signature is a technical formality notarizing that the bill has been introduced and resolved upon in accordance with the procedure stipulated by the constitution. The president does not even have the authority to refuse signing a bill he or she deems unconstitutional as such; a bill may be vetoed only on the grounds that its genesis, not its substance, is in violation of basic law. Adjudicating upon the constitutionality of the bill itself is the exclusive prerogative of the Constitutional Court. The President could, however, order a referendum concerning a bill passed by the legislature.

Other duties

  • The President represents Austria in international relations. Actual foreign policy being cabinet matter, however, this responsibility is exclusively ceremonial. Mainly, the president accredits foreign ambassadors and symbolically acts as the host for state visits to Austria.
  • The President is commander in chief of Austria's armed forces. This, too, is largely nominal, the actual head of command being the minister of defense.
  • The President has the authority to dissolve the National Council, or, in this case pending approval of the Federal Council, a state parliament, but exercising this power without good reason would be an unprecedented breach of constitutional convention. (Note that he or she does need to give a reason, and may only use that reason once during his term of office.)
  • The President is a plenipotentiary authorized to rule by emergency decree in times of crisis.
  • The President confers the honours and decorations of the Austrian national honours system. From the day of being elected, he is entitled to wear the Grand Star of the Decoration for Services to the Republic of Austria for life.
  • The President can, and frequently does, pardon criminals.
  • The President has the right to legitimate children born out of wedlock, upon request by the parents. Since Austrian law, for (almost) all intents and purposes no longer differentiates between legitimate and illegitimate children, this is no longer of any practical importance.

Succession

The Constitution of Austria 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 be hindered from fulfilling his or her role for a period of more than twenty days, presidential powers and responsibilities devolve upon the college of the three presidents of the National Council.

This procedure is tried and tested as several Presidents, most recently Thomas Klestil, have died in office. When Klestil had to be rushed to the hospital following a heart attack three days before the end of his second term, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel assumed the role of acting president. When Klestil subsequently died, the role of acting president was inherited, jointly to be exercised, by the National Council chairs.

Latest election

e • d Summary of the 25 April 2004 Austrian Presidential election results
Candidates and nominating parties Votes %
Heinz Fischer (Social Democratic Party of Austria) 2,166,690 52.4
Benita Ferrero-Waldner (Austrian People's Party) 1,969,326 47.6
Total (turnout 70.8 %) 4,136,016 100.0
Invalid votes 182,423
Total votes 4,318,439
Eligible voters 6,030,982
Source: Austrian ministry of Interior

List of Presidents of Austria (1919-Present)

Federal Presidents of the First Austrian Republic (1918-1938)
No. Name Picture Born-Died Term of office Party
1 Karl Seitz
(President of the Constituent National Assembly
to 10 November 1920, then acting President)
Karl Seitz cropped.JPG 1869-1950 5 March 1919 9 December 1920 Social Democratic Party
2 Michael Hainisch Michael Hainisch.jpg 1858-1940 9 December 1920 10 December 1928 without party affiliation
3 Wilhelm Miklas 1872-1956 10 December 1928 13 March 1938 Christian Social Party
Federal Presidents of the Second Austrian Republic (1945-Present)
No. Name Picture Born-Died Term of office Party
1 Karl Renner 1870-1950 29 April 1945 31 December 1950 Social Democratic Party
2 Theodor Körner 1873-1957 21 June 1951 4 January 1957 Social Democratic Party
3 Adolf Schärf Adolf Schärf (cropped).JPG 1890-1965 22 May 1957 28 February 1965 Social Democratic Party
4 Franz Jonas 1899-1974 9 June 1965 24 April 1974 Social Democratic Party
5 Rudolf Kirchschläger 1915-2000 8 July 1974 8 July 1986 without party affiliation
6 Kurt Waldheim Bundesarchiv Bild 183-M0921-014, Beglaubigungsschreiben DDR-Vertreter in UNO new.png 1918-2007 8 July 1986 8 July 1992 Austrian People's Party
7 Thomas Klestil Thomas Klestil.jpg 1932-2004 8 July 1992 6 July 2004 Austrian People's Party 1)
8 Heinz Fischer Heinz Fischer Vienna Oct. 2006 001-cropped.jpg *1938 8 July 2004 Incumbent Social Democratic Party
1) In 1998 Klestil was supported by Social Democratic Party, Austrian People's Party and Freedom Party of Austria.

Impeachment and removal

The Austrian constitution provides that the Federal President can be removed from office by a referendum initiated by the Federal Assembly. The Federal Assembly can also impeach the President before the Constitutional Court. However, neither of these courses has ever been taken.

To hold a referendum on the deposition of the President the National Council must first pass a resolution requiring that the Federal Assembly be convened to consider the matter. This resolution must be endorsed by two-thirds of all votes cast in a meeting at which at least one half of the total number of members are present. If the resolution is passed the President is immediately suspended from the exercise of his or her powers and the Federal Assembly is convoked by the Federal Chancellor. A referendum may then be held on the demand of the assembly. If a proposal, in a referendum, to depose the President is rejected then the President is deemed to have been re-elected, the National Council is dissolved and a general election must be held.

History

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 nation 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 also became a member (ex officio) of the Austrian 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. Following the formal refusal of Emperor Karl I to exercise highest state authority (it was not an abdication: "Ich verzichte auf jeden Anteil an den Staatsgeschäften. Gleichzeitig enthebe Ich Meine österreichische Regierung ihres Amtes.") on 11 November, parliament proclaimed the Republic of German Austria on 12 November. The assembly presidents (Seitz, Franz Dinghofer and Johann Nepomuk Hauser) continued to serve as acting heads of state until 4 March 1919, when the National Constituent Assembly collectively assumed these functions. Anton David (4 March 1919 - 5 March 1919) and Seitz (5 March 1919 - 10 November 1920) were the presidents of the National Constituent 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 swearing-in of the first Federal President (9 December 1920). Since Austria had not finalized its decision to structure itself as a federation prior to the formal implementation of the definitive Constitution of Austria on 1 October 1920, referring to Seitz as Federal 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 be President of Austria as of that month, the republic not even having been proclaimed by then.

The constitution originally defined Austria to be a prototypical parliamentary republic assigning executive as well as legislative almost entirely to the parliament. The cabinet was appointed by the National Council rather than the president, who in turn was elected by the Federal Assembly rather than the people. The president's term of office was four rather than six years. The president was answerable to the Federal Assembly and, in particular, had no authority to dissolve the National Council. Not even having much actual influence on the appointment of Constitutional Court justices, the President of Austria all in all had to be content with almost exclusively ceremonial duties. 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 authoritarianist Heimwehr movement evolving during the 1920s. The Heimwehr was in favor of a system granting more powers to the head of state and eventually daunted the political establishment into enacting an amendment which did precisely that. From 7 December 1929 on, the constitution arranged for the office of the President of Austria to wield the sweeping executive and legislative authority it formally still has. It also called for the office to be filled by popular vote for a term of six years. Before any popular election actually took place, however, a coalition of Heimwehr movement and Christian Social Party tore down Austrian parliamentarism altogether, formally annulling the constitution on 1 May 1934. Though Austria now was a dictatorship in all but name, power was concentrated in the hands of the chancellor, not those of the president. Wilhelm Miklas was back to effectively being powerless but agreed to act as a fig leaf of institutional continuity anyway. 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 nation 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, and the party chairs were afraid that lengthy discussion might provoke the Red Army then in control of Vienna to barge in. The constitution thus reenacted effective 1 May therefore still included the provision calling for a president elected by popular vote. 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 Renner's successor Theodor Körner, Presidents of Austria have in fact been elected by the people.

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