Category Archives: Austria

Austria – Snap elections and a possible FPÖ victory: Potential to alter the functioning of Austria’s semi-presidentialism?

The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.

To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).

An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election [1]. Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).

SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner [1]. Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.

Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.

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[1] Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
[2] An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

Austria – Green candidate Van der Bellen beats far-right Hofer in repeat of runoff election

On Sunday, 4 December, Austria finally held the do-over of the second round of presidential elections after the constitutional court voided the first attempt due to irregularities. Green party veteran Alexander Van der Bellen, running as an independent, had won the first run-off on 22 May with only a razor-thin margin of 31,000 votes, but was now able to claim a more decisive victory. While national and international observers may be relieved by the fact that controversial far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (FPÖ) was defeated, the election has already spelled an end to business as usual in Austrian politics and may even have greater signalling power for (presidential) elections across Europe next year.

results-of-the-austrian-presidential-election-2016-presidential-power-com

The Austrian presidential elections 2016, more precisely its runoff, will likely go down in history as an example of all the things that can go wrong when organising an election. The Constitutional Court found numerous violations of procedures in its ruling on the first runoff elections, ranging from the deliberate destruction of unaccounted ballots, early opening of postal ballots and the accidental inclusion of 14 and 15 year-olds on the electoral register. The do-over of the election – first planned for 4 October – was riddled with problems, too, and had to be postponed due to faulty glue application on envelopes for postal ballot.

The subsequently stretched out electoral campaign showed great variations and intensity and approval for the two candidates which can otherwise only rarely be observed (hardly any country around the world leaves more than one month between first round and runoff). At first, these variations and particularly the voiding of the first runoff seemed to play in favour of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer whose approval ratings put him several percent ahead of his challenger. Nevertheless, while politicians from the dominant parties SPÖ and ÖVP (whose candidates failed to enter the runoff for the first time since the end of WWII) were still reluctant to declare their support for either candidate in anticipation of a FPÖ victory and the need to form a coalition after the next general elections, the vast majority of public figures and intellectuals now supported Van der Bellen (a fact criticised by Hofer’s campaign as a conspiracy of the establishment). Yet Hofer also fell victim to his aggressive rhetoric and his failure to criticise the vicious attacks on Van der Bellen by his followers via social media.

Hofer also continued to advertise his vision of a more active president who would make more frequent use of the ample constitutional powers of the office which include dismissal of the Chancellor at will (see also Robert Elgie’s interview with Die Presse here). The prospect of a new government and/or early elections – which may still happen – may have turned voters towards Van der Bellen who promised to continue within the current political practice and limit his activism to more frequent interpellations and statements in political debates.

Increased international attention and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, has been another factor working in Van der Bellen’s favour. Similarly to the French presidential election in 2002, when far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen surprisingly relegated Social Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to third place and entered the runoff against incumbent Jacques Chirac, the potential of a far-right victory and subsequent ‘slide to the right’ mobilised voters for the left-centrist Van der Bellen. Nevertheless, the stark difference between electoral results (Chirac beat Le Pen with 82:18 margin), highlights the considerably greater support for the far-right in Austria (although the French presidential contest 2017 may change the perspective on this).

The latter example naturally leads to the question of what consequences the Austrian elections have nationally and internationally. The result of the first round already led to the resignation of Werner Faymann as Chancellor and SPÖ leader. Both SPÖ and ÖVP have lost greatly in public support, whereas the FPÖ – which already governs some of the Austrian federal states – is now on track to become the strongest party in the next election. Although a continuation of the grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP may remain arithmetically possible, politically it will be difficult to exclude the FPÖ from government much longer – an option which will likely find the same amount of resistance among Austria’s neighbours as when it was first part of a coalition government with the ÖVP 1999-2003. The election has rung in the end of the traditional dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP and highlighted their eroding support in the electorate. The fact that Hofer still won the first round of presidential elections and received more than 35.1% of votes in the run-off, will have encouraged far-right leaders across the European continent and may – as mentioned above – have signalling effect for the French presidential elections. Looking towards elections in other European countries, the influence of the result is less clear. Hofer’s FPÖ is a long- and well-established far-right party and panders quite openly to those with questionable views of the Nazi-regime and Austrian involvement in it. In Germany, where general elections will be held in October 2017, the challenger from the far-right comes in the form of the ‘Alternative for Germany’. Although it only narrowly missed the 5% threshold in the 2013 elections and has recently won mandates in the European Parliament state legislatures, it is far from being as deeply anchored and widely accepted in society as the FPÖ.

Last, the Austrian elections highlights a potential emerging trend in (presidential) elections – the rise of establishment figures running anti-establishment campaigns. Despite being clearly part of the political establishment, Hofer (deputy speaker of the lower chamber of parliament) and Van der Bellen (former leader of the Green party and long-standing deputy) presented themselves as anti-establishment candidates. One could argue that support for Miloš Zeman (also a former party leader and Prime Minister) in the Czech Republic as well as for long-time senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and billionaire Donald Trump in the presidential election elections are expressions of the same phenomenon. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this means that (far-right) populists can only be defeated by other (centre or left-wing) populists, or if there is another way in which established parties can counter the erosion of their support.

Presidential power and the Austrian presidential election

In April 2016, I was asked by the Austrian newspaper, Die Presse, to provide some general thoughts on presidents and presidential power in the run up to the first round of the presidential election there. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, was expected to do well and I was asked about how the role of the president might change if he won. The article in Die Presse summarised my thoughts and is available in German here. With the re-run run-off election due to be held on 4 December and with the FPÖ likely to win, here is the full transcript of the comments I returned. They seem as relevant now as before except that the traditional situation in Austria is perhaps even more likely to change if Hofer is elected than was envisaged in April. Given the context of the election, if he wins he may wish to flex his presidential powers. Moreover, the presidency itself is also perhaps more likely to be the subject of controversy.

  • Which of the powers of a president have the greatest political significance in your view?

Presidential powers are always dependent upon context, particularly the party political context. For example, the power to dissolve parliament seems like a really important constitutional power. However, if the president’s party is poorly placed to do well at the election or if an election has been held only recently and another election is not going to change the situation, then the power to dissolve the legislature becomes almost a dead power. In effect, the president cannot use it. The same goes for the power to call a referendum. Presidents tend to call referendums when they know they are going to win them. If they are worried that they will lose, then they rarely risk calling one in the first place. So, the power in effect disappears.

Two important powers are the power to appoint and dismiss the PM. The power to appoint the PM seems very important. However, as before, often presidents have little choice. The election may have returned a party or coalition with a legislative majority. The party or coalition is likely to have its own Chancellor candidate. So, the president can often do little more than choose the PM that the parties have already agreed on. Only if there is a very fragmented party system, or if the government collapses and there is no clear alternative PM can the president exercise a personal influence. Clearly, this circumstance can arise, but it usually rare. By contrast, the power to dismiss the PM can be important. This situation can allow the president to take the initiative, especially if the PM is unpopular. The risk is that it brings the president into conflict with the parties in the legislature. Indeed, this power is one that is not recommended for young democracies.

  • Do you agree with the view that the actual power of a president depends on whether he controls (or is able to neutralize) parliament? Is it true that in a semi-presidential regime, a weak parliament is the precondition for a strong president?

Again, the exercise of power is a mix of constitutional powers and political context. France is the classic example here. In 1958 the constitutional powers of parliament were greatly reduced and by the mid-1960s the president was established as the main political leader of the country. So it looks as if a weak parliament was a necessary condition for a strong president. However, in France presidents have tended to be backed by a presidential majority in parliament. This majority has been loyal. The majority has not wanted to use any of parliament’s remaining powers to block the president. Even when the majority has been opposed to the president during periods of cohabitation, power has simply shifted to the prime minister. Parliament has not become any stronger. So, yes, the constitution matters. Parliaments can have more or less powers in that regard. However, the relationship between presidents and parties is equally if not more important. In practice, a weak parliament is often the result of a particular party political context, just as much as if not more so than the constitutional situation itself. Of course, the flip side can occur too. If the party political context is confused, then parliament can become strong, usually viz. the PM and government, though, rather than the president. That said, if parliament uses it power to vote down a government, then the president can be called upon to make a choice about a new government.

  • If you assess the constitutional powers of the Austrian president, could he – given different political circumstances – become as strong an institutional figure as the French president? What would be necessary for this to happen?

Austria is a very unusual case. Iceland is perhaps the only other country like it in terms of the presidency. In both countries, the powers of the president are strong relative to most other semi-presidential countries. For example, the Austria president probably has more constitutional powers than the the French president. The Austrian president can dismiss the PM and government, whereas the French president, according to the constitution at least, cannot. In practice, though, the situations in the two countries are reversed. In Austria, the president is a pure figurehead and has almost always simply executed the decisions that the government and parties have wanted. True, some presidents have been more willing to criticize the government than others, but none has used their powers independently. By contrast, the French president is seen as the leader of the presidential majority in parliament. This means that the president has usually been able to appoint a loyal prime minister who will carry out the president’s wishes with the backing of the majority. As the leader of the majority, the president has also had the de facto power to change the PM even though this is not in the constitution, whereas the Austrian president has not exercised that power, even though it is in the constitution.

For the situation in Austria to change, the political context must change. Up to now, parties have not chosen candidates who are likely to see the presidency as an active institution. This can be seen in the age and profile of previous presidents and presidential candidates. They have tended to be elderly figures, who have often had an important party career in the past but who are no longer senior party decision-making figures. Alternatively, they have been largely independent figures who have been adopted by political parties. In neither case have they had the party political authority to act independently. In this context, it is not surprising that they have been figurehead presidents. Moreover, there is also the historical factor in Austria. This has weighed against the desire for an active presidency. However, the political context can always change. If the president were to come from outside the governing parties, then this could change the situation. The new president might feel that s/he has a mandate to act. Also, if there was now a mood for a more active presidency to address the country’s difficult issues, then a new president might feel justified in using his/her powers.

Let’s go back to the Icelandic case. Here, it was very common to hear that the president’s powers were lost. The president was a pure figurehead. Nothing would change that. Powers would never be used. However, during the financial crash the president vetoed government bills on two occasions, leading to two referendums. Suddenly, the powers that some people had assumed had been lost came back. In fact, they had never gone away. It was just that the political context had changed and now the president was in a position to use them. The context in Austria may change too.

  • Is there any institutional aspect or authority that makes the Austrian president extraordinary in comparison with other European presidents (e.g. the right to freely choose the prime minister?

Other countries have this power. For example, the French president has the power to nominate the PM freely. It is worth noting that in contrast to some countries the Austrian president does not have long list of clearly defined executive powers. If the new president wanted to be more active and if the president was from a party that was not in government, there may be the potential for the constitutional powers of the president and government to be disputed. In this event, the courts might be called upon the interpret the constitution. This has happened previously in countries like Romania and Poland. So, the presidency could become a source of constitutional debate. Again, though, this would require a change of political context.

  • Do you think that directly elected presidents are (ceteris paribus) more powerful/influential than indirectly elected presidents, or are other factors (such as the configuration of the party system or the authority of the office-holders) of greater significance?

Direct election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a strong president. It is true that directly elected presidents tend to be more powerful than indirectly elected ones. For example, the directly elected French and Romanian presidents are more active than the indirectly elected German or Latvian presidents. That said, there are some very weak directly elected presidents. Austria is one case. Ireland and Slovenia are others. There are also times when indirectly elected presidents have been influential in countries like Italy. So, direct election is not a guarantee of power. Moreover, if we look at Slovakia and the Czech Republic, both of which changed their constitution and shifted from an indirectly elected president to a directly elected president, we see that the role of the president scarcely changed pre- and post-direct election. In other words, direct election has not made much difference to the exercise of presidential power in either country.

Again, what matters in the mix of the constitutional situation and the political context. The combination of a directly elected president, an important set of constitutional powers, and a political context where the exercise of those powers is seen as both legitimate and desirable can lead to a very influential president. In practice, that combination of factors has been relatively rare in post-war Europe. France is the obvious case where they have combined on occasions. In most cases, though, even when there has been a directly elected president, then either the president has not enjoyed very many powers, or, more usually, the party political context has not been particularly conducive to the exercise of those powers at least in the long-term.

Austria – Complaint against narrow runoff result might lead to partial do-over of election

After Alexander Van der Bellen won the runoff with a razor-thin margin, calls for a recount and even accusations of electoral fraud from Norbert Hofer’s (FPÖ) supporters were expected. The FPÖ has now lodged a formal complaint with the Austrian Constitutional Court which could trigger a partial rerun of the second round of presidential elections. It is clear that there were some irregularities in the counting of votes and bodies on various levels failed to follow correct protocol. Unfortunately, Austria’s Ministry of Interior and the respective state electoral bodies have also not done the best job in preventing the emergence of further doubts. Given that the FPÖ has yet to make public its list of suspected violations – which is said to exceed the number of previously publicised cases – it is difficult to establish what the outcome of their complaint will be. In any case, the FPÖ has already succeeded in gnawing off some of the new president’s legitimacy before he has even taken office.

The known cases of electoral violations mainly concern the counting of postal votes, idiosyncratic decisions or errors by local officials, and turnout exceeding 100%. Some of the state-level agencies started counting postal votes (which were eventually decisive for the election) too early and some others at least opened the post vote envelopes already on Sunday instead of Monday morning. Although this was against protocol, there is not indication that there was any manipulation or interference with the ballots. In another case in the town of Helfenberg, there were three ballot papers too many in the box after the end of the day even though all voters had been registered twice before casting their vote. Eventually, the local electoral commission decided to take out three invalid votes to make numbers match – while certainly unusual, this seems like a fair decision in relation to its effect on the outcome. The problem here is that the mayor ripped up the three supernumerary ballot papers – a clear violation of federal law. There was also one case where a women was unable to cast her vote due to an error on the electoral register (where she was listed as a postal voter).

More troubling is the report of the municipality Miesenbach in Lower Austria where apparently a handful of 14 and 15 year-olds where allowed to vote – the general voting age is 16. Overall, fifteen teenagers below the voting age were listed as eligible to vote of which five eventually cast a ballot. The reason seems to be that the local electoral commission mixed up the electoral register for the presidential election with the so-called ‘Wählerevidenz’, a constantly updated list based on the local resident registration database. 380 valid ballots were cast in Miesenback, 258 for Hofer and 122 for Van der Bellen, so that it didn’t have a significant impact. Nevertheless, this is a blunder that cannot be easily justified.

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

For a while the official election website showed 146.9% turnout in Waidhofen/Ybbs

Last but not least, an embarrassing error fuelled accusations of electoral fraud on the day after the election. The official election website on the pages of the Ministry of Interior showed an impossibly high turnout of 146.9% for the district Waidhofen in the city of Ybbs. A screenshot was widely shared across social media, particularly by supporters of Norbert Hofer. The Ministry later traced the error back to the state electoral commission. While the local district had submitted correct data, the state commission made an error during data entry and transmitted the incorrect data to the Ministry. Human error happens in every election but raises questions over the suitability of the IT systems used by Austrian authorities, e.g. why is there not automated checking of improbable values in the systems? In some other districts, turnout even exceeded 200% as a great number of people made use of proxy voters. In addition, the number of distributed ballot papers was slightly lower than votes received in a few more electoral districts. Nevertheless, while this may seem suspicious to international observers, this is simply due to the postal vote system in place in Austria (as well as in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany). Postal voters receive their ballot paper by post and can either send it back by mail or go to any relevant polling station to cast their vote. The latter happens particularly often when people are on holiday and still want to cast their vote in person (in Germany this is limited to SMD districts).

These known cases alone should not be sufficient to trigger a partial re-run of the presidential runoff in the affected districts. However, the FPÖ claims that violations were recorded in 94 of 117 postal voting districts. Given that it was the postal votes that turned the result around and Van der Bellen eventually won with only 31,000 votes (0.6%) difference, such a claim – if it proves true – would definitely require a do-over of some sort. The Federal Returning Officer, Robert Stein, has however expressed doubts that the whole second round would be repeated. In any case, the FPÖ might have found a way to once again mobilise the anti-establishment vote that Norbert Hofer received. From the point of view of a rational observer, a ‘conspiracy’ against the FPÖ by the state (including public TV stations – one of the FPÖ’s recurrent targets during the election campaign) may be out of the question. Nevertheless, it is likely to resonate with the FPÖ’s core electorate which sees the stigmatisation of the far-right party and categorical exclusion from the federal government as an injustice and plot orchestrated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Even if the complaint is entirely unsuccessful, it casts a shadow over Van der Bellen’s election and will give additional ammunition to the FPÖ in the run-up to and after the next parliamentary elections.

Austria – Alexander Van der Bellen wins presidential runoff with razor-thin margin

On Sunday, 22 May, Austrian went to the polls for the second round of presidential elections which – for the first time in Austrian history – did not include the candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP. Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens) narrowly beat his opponent, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), with a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes (0.6%) in a neck-and-neck race that was only decided on Monday afternoon after all postal votes had been counted. While a victory of the far-right Hofer, widely feared by international and a majority of national commentators alike, has thus been averted, the election marks without doubt a pivotal moment in Austrian politics. It spells the end of the dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP, the manifestation of ever stronger political divisions between the far-right and the remainder of the political spectrum, and seems to fall within a larger trend in support for right-wing parties and candidates in European politics.

Results of the Austrian presidential elections - Van der Bellen + Hofer

Already the results of the first round had shaken up Austrian politics. First, neither candidate of the governing parties SPÖ and ÖVP – who have dominated the Austrian presidency and government since the end of WWII – made it into the run-off. Both only polled a combined 22.4% of votes – far below their worst combined result yet. Following the election debacle and repeated calls for consequences, Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) eventually resigned, citing a lack of support in his party. There have not been any consequences yet in the the ÖVP, yet it is likely that the party will, too, try to reinvent itself at least partially before the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Analysts were unsure of whether Van der Bellen, a veteran Green politician (though formally independent), would be able to catch up to Hofer, who serves as one of the speakers of Austria’s federal parliament. Already shortly after the exit polls for the first round had been announced, parties categorically declined to make any kind of recommendations – only the third-placed candidate Irmgard Griss (independent) indirectly came out in support for Alexander Van der Bellen shortly before the second round, saying that she had given him her (postal) vote. The campaign of the two candidates was overshadowed by their widely panned performance during an experimental TV debate in which they went head to head without any TV presenter to moderate the discussion. Regardless, voters turned out in larger numbers to the polls on Saturday – turnout increased by 4% to 72.7% (the highest value since 1998).

During the election night (or afternoon, to be precise) tensions were running high after a first exit poll suggested a victory for Hofer, yet too narrow to exceed the margin of error. Subsequently, projections quickly suggested a stalemate between candidates and it became clear that the race would only be decided after counting the postal vote on Monday. Although Hofer had the majority of votes cast in ballot offices across the country (among these Van der Bellen only received a majority in Vienna and the state of Voralberg), Van der Bellen eventually won the election thanks to an overwhelming majority 61.7% among postal votes (with 746,110 they represented 16.6% of all votes). While some commentators suggested that parties might try to challenge such a narrow victory by either candidates, Hofer acknowledged his defeat on Monday afternoon.

Van der Bellen’s election introduces an unknown intro Austrian politics which – with regard to both chancellery and presidency – has hitherto been dominated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Although Van der Bellen formally ran as an independent, he is still formally a member of the Green party (which also supported his candidacy logistically and financially). While the Green party is part of the parliamentary opposition, it would be incorrect to speak of the advent of a period of cohabitation. Despite his general opposition to the dominance of the two mainstream parties voiced during the campaign, Van der Bellen’s relationship with the government is likely to be neutral and even if not unified at least supportive. Van der Bellen will have to show some moderate activism to please his electorate and while this could be markedly more than his predecessors (who largely refrained from interference in day-to-day politics) it will be far from the dramatic steps promised by his defeated contender Hofer (who signalled he would dismiss the government and dissolve parliament).

Irrespective of the fact that Hofer lost the runoff, he – and his party – will play a much more prominent role in Austrian politics from now on. Since January this year, opinion polls see the FPÖ at 32-34% which would make them the largest party in the next federal election (on overage, SPÖ and ÖVP only poll around 22% each). Hofer’s success also seems to fit in with a larger trend of gains by far-right parties across Europe. While these have partly been able to feed on anti-immigrant sentiments amidst the influx of refugees into (Western) Europe, in Austria the success of the FPÖ also seems attributable to an anti-establishment mood which is not sufficiently and/or successfully articulated by other political parties.

Austria – Political earthquake as candidates of far-right and Greens win first round of presidential elections

On Sunday, 24 April, Austrian were called to the polls for the first round of presidential elections. Norbert Hofer, candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was the surprise winner with 36.4% of votes and thus 15% more than predicted by opinion polls. Hofer will now enter a run-off with Alexander Van der Bellen, a formally independent candidate supported by the Greens. Candidates of the government parties SPÖ and ÖVP which dominated Austrian federal politics since 1949 failed to make an impression on the voters and only polled a combined 22.4%, signalling a potential end to the politics of grand coalitions in Austria.

Results of the first round of presidential elections in Austria, 22 April 2016_presidential-power.com

The latest opinion polls before the election had predicted a relatively secure lead for Alexander Van der Bellen and a closer race for second place between Hofer and independent candidate Griss. Nevertheless, from the beginning of the election it was clear that Hofer had gained significantly more votes than expected and would enter the run-off while Van der Bellen and Griss would compete for second place. Although Van der Bellen eventually finished 2% ahead of Griss, her third place is still remarkable. Griss, a former president of the Austrian Supreme Court, was largely unknown to the Austrian public only a year ago and is not connected to any party (she received some indirect backing from the liberal NEOS party). Her result is also the best ever won by an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, surpassing previous record-holder Gertraud Knoll and her 1998 result of 13.6% by almost 2%. As expected, support for Andreas Khol (ÖVP) and Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ) as candidates of the governing parties remained low and both eventually received considerably less votes than predicted. After the combined vote share of SPÖ and ÖVP candidates averaged 89% 1951-2010 and never dropped below 63.4%, their combined vote share of just 22.4% is a clear signal that voters have become tired of the parties’ political dominance. The construction entrepreneur and Viennese socialite Richard Lugner (independent), whose campaign was widely ridiculed (or least not taken seriously), only received 2.3% of the vote – 7.6% less than in his first candidacy in 1998.

votes for candidates by voters' party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections

Source: Austrian Press Agency

A look at voters’ party support in the 2013 parliamentary elections shows the reasons for the weakness of candidates of established parties and the success of others. Both Khol and Hundstorfer were not able to mobilise a significant amount of voters beyond their core electorate and many ÖVP and SPÖ voters instead turned to other candidates. Hofer’s votes, too, mainly relied on the FPÖ electorate; however, he was also able to get votes from a number of other parties. A similar picture emerges for Van der Bellen – although 46% of his votes came from voters who already voted Green in 2013, he otherwise received support from voters of almost all other parties. The distribution of 2013 preferences among the voters of Irmgard Griss underscores her appeal across the political spectrum (despite generally centre-conservative policy positions). Although votes for Lugner also came from voters of a variety of 2013 preferences, he seems to have gathered the non-constructive (because inconsequential) protest vote.

All three front-runners tried hard in their campaigns to present themselves as anti-establishment candidates. For Griss, the success of this strategy is hardly surprising as she lacks a party affiliation and clearly differed from candidates in her rhetoric. It is much more surprising that Hofer, a prominent representative of the FPÖ, was able to make the same strategy work for him. A post-election survey showed that his youth (with just 45 years he is the youngest candidate) played in his favour. Furthermore, the ostracization of his party on the federal (and international) level aided his success. Van der Bellen, too, is a veteran politician and very much part of the political establishment, yet due to the marginal position of the Greens (they have not been part of any municipal, state or federal government so far) this seems to have mattered less for his voters. Van der Bellen also managed to mobilise the greatest absolute number of previous non-voters – 84,000 voters who did not vote in 2013 came out to vote for him while Hofer and Griss only mobilised 49,000 and 44,000 respectively.

After the announcement of results, all parties and candidates who failed to advance to the second round (except Griss who is still consulting with her team) declined to make a voting recommendation for the run-off. SPÖ and ÖVP, clearly shaken by the miserable performance of its candidates, thereby appears to try and keep their options open for a (further) decline in support at the next parliamentary elections in 2018, the strengthening of the FPÖ and the resulting necessity for forming different coalition. Although the possibility of early elections was mentioned regularly during the election night, this seems generally unlikely – a major reshuffle in the cabinet and at the helm of both parties on the other hand will likely take place soon. Neither Hofer nor Van der Bellen can be sure to win the run-off and need to continue campaigning hard.

Last, both candidates promise different ways of how they will behave in office (for a slightly different assessment, see here). Although both will be in cohabitation with the SPÖ-ÖVP government, Hofer is more likely to a more active president and use the formally considerable powers of the office (which includes the right to dismiss the government at will). Particularly in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections, Hofer could try to highlight perceived failings of the coalition parties and openly campaign for his party  – something office-holders have so far refrained from doing. Although analysts highlighted last night that in the past Austrian voters were reluctant to vote for either SPÖ or ÖVP when they already nominated the president (implying a reversed tailcoat effect), the days when voters could make such strategic decisions are now over – electoral fragmentation has risen steadily over the last decade and will most likely continue to do so in 2018. Hofer also threatened to dissolve the parliament should he win the election, yet this would be an unprecedented move and experts still argue about whether it would in fact be possible. In contrast to Hofer, Van der Bellen is much less likely to be active. First, the electoral potential of the Green party is limited (particularly in rural Austria) and seems to have reached a natural ceiling in the last elections when it gained 12.42%. Second, Van der Bellen is clearly opposed to a strengthening of the FPÖ. While he might decline to swear in a government after the elections that includes the far-right, he would need to be very careful not to lose too much of the ‘independent image’ created during this campaign and become the target of FPÖ’s anti-establishment campaign.

Austria – Will the April presidential elections bring an end to the SPÖ-ÖVP dominance of federal politics?

Politics in Austria since reinstatement of the republic in 1945 dominated by the two mass parties, SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) and ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Presidential  elections have thereby been no exception. After Austria’s first post-WW II head of state, Karl Renner (SPÖ), had still been held indirectly in a joint sessions of the two chambers of parliament, Austrian voters have chosen their president by popular vote since 1951. On 24 April, Austrians are once again called to the polls to elected a new president after president Heinz Fischer (independent; previously SPÖ) served two consecutive and is not eligible for re-election. However, for the first time in 75 years, it appears possible that not a candidate of either of the big parties will win the race for the Hofburg, the seat of the Austrian presidency.

The dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP in previous elections

% of first round votes for SPÖ and ÖVP candidates 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

During the last 75 years, candidates nominated by SPÖ and ÖVP dominated the candidate field in presidential elections and in almost half of them other parties yielded to their dominance and fielded no candidates. Even when other candidates were in the running, SPÖ and ÖVP managed to capture an overwhelming majority of valid 1st round votes. Subsequently, all run-off elections were also decided between SPÖ and ÖVP candidates. Only on three occasions – on each of which the incumbent of the respective other party ran ran for re-election – have these parties not nominated their own candidate.

This dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP becomes even clearer when looking at the effective number of candidates (ENC) throughout the years – irrespective of whether Laakso’s and Taagepera’s or Golosov’s measure is used and how many actual candidates contest the election, the ENC stays close to or below 2. The indices also highlight the extreme change that the 2016 election might bring based on recent opinion polls – both exhibit scores that are more than twice as high as their previous average (Laakso & Taagepera: 5.341; Golosov: 4.658) and come close to approximating the actual number of candidates, signifying a relatively evenly matched field of competing candidates. The actual number of candidates in this election also ties the previous record of six candidates in 1951 and it is the first time that two independent candidates (i.e. not nominated or officially supported by any party) are competing for the presidency.

Candidates and competition in Austrian presidential elections, 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

A look the candidates in the 2016 elections

The above figures have already shown that this election is far from being dominated by the candidates of only two parties. Yet, recent opinion polls (see below) illustrate just how much this election differs from previous contests as the candidates of neither SPÖ nor ÖVP are even among the front-runners but trail behind in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

The field of candidates is headed by Alexander Van der Bellen, an economic professor, former member of parliament and leader of the Green Party. While he is officially running as an independent, the Green Party is financing his campaign. As Der Standard notes, his nominal independence means that he could avoid a lengthy nomination procedure (requiring only the party leadership’s support) and his campaign is not bound by the same complicated transparency regulations of the Austrian party law as party-nominees. In addition, it is very likely a way to make his candidacy more appealing to voters of other parties (Van der Bellen’s personal popularity has always exceeded that of his party). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that one of the aims of his campaign, which otherwise focusses on a number of traditionally green and left-of-centre postulates, is to “become the first president who does not come from the big party apparatusses [i.e. SPÖ/ÖVP], who serves independently” – thus mirroring the rhetoric of independent Slovak president Andrej Kiska in 2014. Should he win, Van der Bellen would only be the second Green president in the world after Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis.

The fact that Norbert Hofer, candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), follows in second place is less surprising. The FPÖ (whose inclusion in the federal government by the ÖVP 2000-2003 led to calls for sanctions from other EU nations) has benefited greatly from the refugee crisis during which its xenophobic rhetoric and clear stance resonated with many Austrians and let the party rise in the polls. Hofer, a member and third deputy speaker of the Austrian National Council, has also integrated a number of other slogans used by right-wing populists across Europe into his campaign (e.g. criticism of the EU, more direct democracy). Given his steady performance in the polls, Hofer will quite likely make it into the second round unless Griss’ ratings rise any further.

candidates and polls in the Austrian presidential elections 2016_presidential-power.com

The performance of third-ranking candidate Irmgard Griss is not only notable because she is likely to achieve the best result of an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, but also because of her ability to fundraise (she has received the highest amount of all candidates so far). Griss is a lawyer and former president of the Austrian Supreme Court and originally entertained the idea of a candidacy as a joint candidate of SPÖ and ÖVP, yet as these failed to support her, she announced that she was running as an independent. Her campaign is in many ways a crossover between those of the two frontrunners as she stresses her independence from party politics (in many ways postulating a form of ‘anti-politics’) on the one hand and criticises the government for its handling of the refugee crisis. As a centre-right candidate she is likely to be supported by disappointed ÖVP-voters and get part of the conservative-leaning protest vote. It is difficult to establish whether she is a danger to Hofer, yet her polling results have recently improved.

Rudold Hundstorfer was presented as the SPÖ candidate in mid-January 2016. As a former trade union official and cabinet minister in the Faymann governments personifies the ‘old politics’ of the Austrian party-state, one of the reasons that he may be trailing behind in the polls. Compared to his rivals, Hundstorfer’s campaign is also relatively bland and lacks concrete political demands. While this and his campaign slogan “The uniting force” reflect the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian presidency according to established constitutional practice (yet in contrast to its formal powers), it appears to be relatively unpopular with voters.

Andreas Khol, a long-time chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group and speaker of the National Council, in many ways shares the ‘flaws’ of his SPÖ contender. His campaign focusses mainly on his experience as a politician and contacts with foreign heads of state. His 6 children and 15 grandchildren are listed as proof of his support for traditional family values (although it should be mentioned that he can be described as relatively progressive compared to others in his party). Apart from that, it also lacks the appeal of the three front-runners.

Last-placed candidate is Viennese construction mogul and socialite Richard Lugner (now best-known for paying celebrities to accompany him to the Vienna Opera Ball). Lugner already once ran for president in 1998, receiving 9.9% of the vote. However, he subsequently failed to build on his success and enter parliament with his movement “The Independents” one year later. After initially falling short of signatures to register his candidacy, Lugner managed to deliver the missing declarations of support within a three-day grace period granted by the Federal Election Agency. After Lugner’s 1998 campaign was still earnest, his current campaign appears to be far from serious. It is focussed on a campaign song performed by himself (watch it here) in which he praises his significantly younger wife’s physical assets (claiming that even Putin has her poster in his wardrobe) and declares to appoint FPÖ party chairman Hans-Christian Strache as Federal Chancellor to “tidy up” Austrian politics.

The 2016 election: Ending the two-party hegemony?

Based on current opinion polls, Van der Bellen and Hofer seem to be relatively set for entering a run-off. Griss, who has been rising in the polls, might however still interfere with this set-up. This constellation notwithstanding, it seems very unlikely that either SPÖ or ÖVP will see their candidates enter the run-off or win the presidential election. The SPÖ will likely support Van der Bellen in a run-off against either Hofer or Griss. The ÖVP on the other hand will likely only support the non-partisan Griss. While Hofer would surely look more kindly on the ÖVP than on its senior coalition partner SPÖ, the FPÖ remains a political pariah on the federal level and supporting their candidate might thus have negative consequences for ÖVP both on the national and international level. Hofer and Griss would most likely endorse each other’s candidacies, yet Griss may be more reluctant to do so if she aims to obtain any other political office. In accordance with his song, Lugner will likely throw his support behind Hofer, yet his endorsement is likely to remain with little influence in any case.

In any case, this presidential election will see an important break with the two-party hegemony of SPÖ and ÖVP which has long dominated Austrian politics. It also shows the immense political impact of the refugee crisis and the dissatisfaction of voters with the political class which was already visible in the 2013 general elections when the new parties “Team Stronach” (economically liberal and eurosceptic party founded by billionaire Frank Stronach) and NEOS (economically and socially liberal party which emerged from a number of citizens’ initiatives) entered the National Council. It remains to be seen which effect the results of the election will have on the established parties. A strong finish of FPÖ candidate Hofer (even in third place) will likely boost the party’s electoral prospects (the next federal elections are due 2018) while the Green Party will not necessarily profit from Van der Bellen’s performance due to its niche appeal. The results of SPÖ and ÖVP – who voters might now also punish for merely general dissatisfaction – on the other hand could be part of a general trend in which mass parties lose their appeal to voters (a prime example of this would be the German Social Democrats).

Austria – President intervenes in coalition conflict over refugee crisis

The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, particularly the failure of European governments to agree on national quotas (or some countries’ refusal to accept any) has dominated headlines and political agenda across Europe. Austria has been no exception, yet here the handling of refugees has led to (yet another) conflict in the governing coalition partners, escalating to the point that some commentators speculated whether early elections would be called. However, while the possibility of the latter had already been denied by chancellor Werner Fayman the conflict took on a new dimension when president Fischer became exceptionally vocal in the debate.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer discussing the problems in the coalition government on TV last week

Austrian president Heinz Fischer discussing the problems in the coalition government on TV last week

Since early last month the two parties in Austria’s grand coalition, the Social Democrats of Chancellor Werner Fayman and the People’s Party, have quarrelled over how to deal with the surge in asylum seekers. In particular, controversy centred around the country’s only refugee ‘reception centre’ which has exceeded its capacity, leading interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner (People’s Party) to build tents as temporary accommodation and to negotiate a deal with neighbouring Slovakia to take up to 500 refugees. To alleviate the crisis, chancellor Fayman proposed to distribute refugees across Austria and have districts deal with the formalities. This step has however been fiercely opposed by the People’s Party and their state governors (currently heading 6 of the country’s 9 federal states) have rejected the idea of a quota for further distribution of refugees or opening more reception centres. The lines of conflict thus run both between the parties in government and within the People’s Party, more precisely between federal and state representatives. In fact, a number of leading Social Democrats even suggested that the People’s Party-led ministry of foreign and affairs and integration should take care of the issue.

The Austrian presidency is characterised by the fact that its incumbents – despite an independent electoral mandate through popular elections and comparatively wide-ranging powers – usually refrain from playing an overly political role, rather taking the role of arbiter above parties than party politician. Likewise, president Heinz Fischer (non-partisan, formerly member of the Social Democrats), waited until last week to join the debate following Slovakia’s offer to accept refugees. Although appreciative of the deal with its neighbour, he criticised the government saying that this could not be a long-term solution to the crisis. In an interview with state broadcaster ORF Fischer said he supported chancellor Fayman’s suggestion, yet also directly criticised the People’s Party for their confrontational style and reprimanded both parties for waging the conflict in the public eye).

Fischer is now entering the last year of his presidency (after serving two terms he is not eligible for re-election) and has generally avoided potentially controversial public statements or political interventions. Not having to depend on any party for support for a potential re-election he can certainly be more vocal and play a more active role without needing to fear voters or government/parliament. However, this only seems to part of the explanation for his current activism. A potential further reason for his intervention might not only be the deteriorating humanitarian situation but also the fact that the refugee crisis is increasingly exploited by the notorious right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) whose approval ratings have risen constantly throughout the last months. Fischer was a vocal critic of the FPÖ’s inclusion in the government with the People’s Party in 2002 (he was speaker of parliament at the time) for which Austria was ostracised by other EU members. It is thus possible that he is trying use his (apolitical) role and public standing to avoid a situation in which the issue of immigration is claimed by the far-right tarnishing the country’s reputation once again.

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

Map_of_EU_presidents-monarchs-xmas-ny

Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.