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President of Austria

From Academic Kids

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

The Austrian Federal President (German: 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 sufferage 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.

Contents

Election

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Flag of the President of Austria

The President of Austria is elected by popular vote for a term of six years and is limited to two terms of office. Voting is open to all of those entitled to vote in elections to the National Council and, in practice, this means that suffrage is universal for all of those over the age of eighteen. 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. more than half) 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 reign in appointing the head of the federal cabinet and, by extension, free reign 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.

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 of 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.
  • In theory, the President has the authority to dissolve the National Council, but exercising this power would be an unprecedented breach of constitutional convention.
  • The President is a plenipotentiary authorized to rule by emergency decree in times of crisis.
  • The President can, and frequently does, pardon criminals.

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.

List of Presidents of Austria

No. Name Took Office Left Office Party
1.Karl Seitz*19181920Social Democratic Workers Party
2.Michael Hainisch19201928Independent
3.Wilhelm Miklas19281938Christian Social Party
4.Karl Renner19451950Social Democratic Party (SPO)
5. Theodor Körner19511957Social Democratic Party
6.Adolf Schärf19571965Social Democratic Party
7.Franz Jonas19651974Social Democratic Party
8.Rudolf Kirchschläger19741986Independent
9.Kurt Waldheim19861992People's Party (OVP)
8.Thomas Klestil 8 July, 19926 July, 2004People's Party
9.Heinz Fischer8 July, 2004PresentSocial Democratic Party

*Karl Seitz was an acting president, see History.

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 October 21, 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 (October 21, 1918 - February 16, 1919). As chairman, he also became a member (ex officio) of the Austrian State Council (Deutschösterreichischer Staatsrat). On November 12, 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 November 11, parliament proclaimed the Republic of German Austria on November 12. The assembly presidents (Seitz, Franz Dinghofer and Johann Nepomuk Hauser) continued to serve as acting heads of state until March 4, 1919, when the National Constituent Assembly collectively assumed these functions. Anton David (March 4, 1919 - March 5, 1919) and Seitz (March 5, 1919 - November 10, 1920) were the presidents of the National Constituent Assembly.

Karl Seitz performed the duties of head of state according to a law of October 1, 1920, which transferred these duties to the "former president of the National Constituent Assembly" for the period from November 10, 1920, to the day of swearing-in of the first Federal President (December 9, 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 October 1, 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 December 9, 1920 and December 10, 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 December 7, 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 May 1, 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 March 13, 1938, the day Austria joined Nazi Germany and thus gave up sovereignty.

When Austria re-established itself as an independent nation on April 27, 1945, the party leaders forming the provisional government decided not to frame new basic law but fall back to the 1929 version of the 1920 constitution. Even though the revision enacted in 1929 was still highly controversial, it was part of Austria's most recent constitutional framework with at least some form of democratic legitimacy, and the party chairs were afraid lengthy discussion might provoke the Red Army then in control of Vienna to barge in. The constitution thus reenacted effective May 1 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 December 20. 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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