Category Archives: Austria

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.

Presidents and Paupers I: How much do Western European presidents earn?

Presidential salaries – particularly during and after the European financial crisis – have been a hotly debated topic in a number of European republics and several office holders have voluntarily taken a pay cut. Last year, I wrote two blog posts about the earnings of Western and Central and Eastern European presidents or my old blog (presidentialactivism.com) which proved to be highly popular and generated some media attention. The posts which are reproduced here today and tomorrow try to answer the questions How much do presidents actually earn? Did the crisis have an impact on presidential salaries? And how do their earnings relate to other factors?

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the highest paid president in Western Europe (if you do not count the Chairman of the Swiss Confederate Presidency) | photo by GuentherZ via wikimedia commons

Presidents’ absolute salaries in comparison

Given different regulations about salaries, lump sums and other benefits it is difficult to establish universally how much presidents actually earn. For this post I tried to ascertain (accurately, I hope) presidents’ yearly gross annual income exclusive of benefits. However, I decided to include so-called 13th/14th salaries as these are part of the taxable income and many presidents were either entitled to receive those or were recently deprived of them (see more under the penultimate subheading). Although the national gross average income would certainly be easier to interpret as a point of reference, I had chosen the 2012 GDP per capita for the sake of reliability. I was also not able to find reliable data for Cyprus (please leave a link in the comment section if you know a reliable source).

Western european presidents_absolute annual salary_presidentialactivism.com_

The bar chart shows that there is a huge variety in presidents’ salaries in Western Europe. The top-earner is the Swiss Federal President, i.e. the chairperson of the seven-person collegiate presidency that is elected ‘President of the Confederation’. Members of the Federal Council receive €360,358 annually, the president receives an additional €9,735 (i.e. 370,093 annually). The runner-up and top earner among the ‘normal’ presidents – the Swiss-type collegiate presidency is worldwide unique – is the Austrian president. Current incumbent Heinz Fischer receives a gross annual salary of €328,188 which consists of 12 regular monthly salaries + two additional monthly salaries (not benefits) of €23,442 each. George Abela, the president of Malta,, on the other hand earns the least with just €56,310 and thus almost six times less than the Austrian counterpart. The average presidential gross annual salary is €191,149, the average GDP per capita (2012) is €30,860. There are only few presidents who earn a similar absolute gross yearly salary, although this looks different for relative yearly salaries.

Setting earnings into perspective

Absolute numbers are always present a somewhat distorted image in cross-country comparisons, which is why it is good to set presidents’ gross annual income into perspective. As mentioned above, I use the respective country’s GDP per capita from 2012 as a point for comparison.

Western european presidents_relative annual salary

There is a lot of change of positions when comparing absolute and relative gross annual income. While the Maltese presidents is still the lowest paid democratically elected head of state in Europe with 350% of the GDP per capita, previous front-runner Switzerland is with 606% of the GDP/capita only 12 percentage points above the Western European average. Greek president Karolos Papoulisas – in absolute earnings rather on the lower end of the spectrum – now finds himself in third position as his annual gross salary is more than eight times more than the GDP per capita (and this even though his salary had already been halved last year – more on this below). The top-earners in relative terms are by far the presidents of Italy and  Austria. Their gross annual salary amounts to almost nine times more than the nominal GDP per capita.

Western european presidents_scatterplot

The correlation between GDP per capita and presidential salaries is surprisingly high (R=0.8) and Switzerland is the only real outlier. The plot also shows that Finnish president Niinistö earned less than one could have expected from the GDP per capita – even before his salary cut.

The crisis and its consequences

The crisis has certainly taken its toll on presidential salaries in Western Europe as several presidents experienced a pay cut or voluntarily cut their own salary. French president Hollande cut his salary by 30%, Irish president Higgins voluntarily waived 23.5% of his salary, Finnish president Niinistö waived 20%. In Greece, parliament cut the president’s salary by 50% (and abolished a €6,240/month  representational allowance) after president Papoulias had suggested it. Papoulias had previously already waived his salary for a whole year as well as his right to a 13th and 14th monthly salary. Cypriot president (who could not be included in this ranking because of missing data) also waived his additional monthly salaries and cut his salary by 25% after his predecessor had already seen a 20% salary cut.

On the other hand, German president Gauck and Austrian president Fischer recently saw an increase in their income. In 2012, Gauck’s gross yearly income went up from €199,000 to €217,000 while Fischer receives has a modest €411 more in his bank account every month since the beginning of this year (this increase also applies to his two additional monthly salaries so that overall the gross yearly income went up by €5,754). At least in the case of Germany, this increase should not be seen too controversial. The president’s earnings are still rather average (see also scatter plot above) and had not been increased for almost a decade (furthermore, the salary is indirectly tied to the income of federal clerks).

Powers and mode of election

With relation to presidential powers and the mode of presidential election, the results contrast those from Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, the absolute results depend on whether Switzerland is included or not. Directly elected presidents have a gross yearly income of €183,355 (573% of the GDP per capita), while indirectly elected presidents (Switzerland included) earn €202,061 (664%) and thus more in absolute and relative terms. However, if one excludes Switzerland (which might be sensible due to the exceptionalism of the Swiss collegiate presidency) the gross yearly income is only €160,511 (703% of GDP per capita) which in absolute numbers is less but significantly more in relative terms.

When it comes to the relationship between presidential powers (measures taken from Siaroff 2003) and presidential income the correlation is R=0.0002 and thus non-existent.

***Sources (click on the country names)***
*AustriaFinlandFranceGermanyGreeceIcelandIrelandItalyMaltaPortugalSwitzerland*

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 1 August 2013.

Presidential term lengths and possibilities for re-election in European republics

I recently read up on the amendments made to the Czech constitution to allow for popular presidential elections and stumbled across Art. 57 (2) – ‘No person may be elected President more than twice in succession’ (which already applied to indirectly elected presidents) and wondered how it looks in other European republics and how it relates to term length. The results of my study of each country’s constitution are summarised in the bar chart below.

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit |photos via wikimedia commons

While Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca (left) can only serve a single term of five years, Italy’s Giorgio Napolitano (right) has recently been elected for his second 7-year term and there is no term-limit | photos via wikimedia commons

Term length

Term length is relatively uniform across European republics – in all but six countries a president’s term is five years. Exceptions can only be found in Iceland and Latvia (4 years), Austria and Finland (6 years), and Italy and Ireland (7 years). Interestingly, all presidents serving terms of six or seven years are popularly elected; yet, so is the president of Iceland who is only serving a four-year term.

Presidential term lengths and re-election provisions in the EU member states_presidentialactivism.com

Term limits

A limitation to two consecutive terms can be found in twelve out of 22 European republics, i.e. a former president who has already served two consecutive terms could theoretically be re-elected for a further two consecutive terms after ‘taking a break’. In Latvia, the constitution states that an individual may not serve as president longer than eight consecutive years (which equates to two terms in office). In Portugal, the constitution specifies that a president who has already served two consecutive terms can only be re-elected as president after a break of at least five years. In other countries with a limit of two consecutive terms no such provision exists.

In seven out of the ten remaining republics, presidents can only be elected for two terms – irrespective of consecutiveness. In Malta, a president can even only be elected for one term (although the constitution is rather imprecise on the subject). In Iceland and Italy, there are no regulations on re-election. While it is the norm in Iceland that presidents serve several terms – since 1944 all presidents have served at least three consecutive terms (the current president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is in his fourth term at the moment), Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is the first Italian president to be re-elected.

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This post first appeared on presidentialactivism.com on 22 August 2013.

Austria & Germany – The pocket-veto power of Federal Presidents

The majority of European presidents (as well as presidents in most other countries around the world) possess at least some role in the legislative process. Typically, this is the right to veto legislation, i.e. send bills back to parliament (usually with comments/sometimes with proposed amendments) where they are then discussed again. Two prominent exceptions are Austria and Germany where presidents do not formally have the right to refuse their signature.[1] Nevertheless, the interpretation of the respective constitutional stipulations is not clear and it can be argued that they possess a form of pocket veto.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer is the only Austrian president to date who has refused to sign a bill despite having no specific veto power |photo via wikimedia commons

At first glance, the stipulations of the Austrian and German constitutions about the final stages of the legislative process appear relatively simple and are almost identical – once a law has been passed it is signed and promulgated by the president (see table below) and the constitution do not foresee a presidential right to refuse the signature. Constitutional scholars in both countries have however argued that presidents may still refuse their signature under certain conditions, although the debate here has not reached a definite conclusion.

Austrian Constitution – Art 47 (1) The adoption of federal laws in accordance with the constitution is authenticated by the signature of the Federal President.
German Basic Law – Art 82 (1) Laws enacted in accordance with the provisions of this Basic Law shall, after countersignature, be certified by the Federal President and promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette.

The main point of contention is hereby the fact that both constitutions do not simply stipulate that presidents sign adopted laws but that they sign laws enacted/adopted in accordance with the respective constitution. For most scholars it is clear that presidents should be allowed to refuse signature to bills (or might pursuant to their oath of office to protect the constitution even have the duty to do so) if there were any procedural errors in any part of the legislative process. This could for instance be that the bill was not passed with the required majority or that the draft did not go through all three readings (correcting such procedural errors is interestingly also a not infrequent reason for ‘ordinary’ presidential vetoes in other European countries).

A significant minority of experts however argues that presidents do not only have the right to check the violation of procedural rules before they sign the bill (and refuse signature if they find any) and assert that the term ‘in accordance with the constitution’ needs to be interpreted more widely. Presidents should therefore also be allowed to review the constitutionality of bills with regard to further stipulations and only sign the bill if there are no ‘obvious’ violations (i.e. presidents and their administration should still not perform an in-depth legal analysis). In Germany, this group of scholars is further divided between a larger group that argues that the president should only check the bill for violations of the ‘fundamental rights‘ and a smaller group supporting an all-encompassing review power. Nonetheless, all scholars agree that presidents cannot refuse to sign bills for political reasons or non-legal objections to the content of legislation.

As there are no provisions that would allow presidents to return the bill to parliament (and for parliament to pass the bill again without introducing it again as a new draft), even the dominant ‘procedural’ interpretation of the respective stipulations can be seen as a form of pocket veto. From 1949 until now, presidents in both countries have only extremely rarely tried to exploit these constitutional ambiguities. German presidents have refused their signature on 6 occasions so far [2] and there has only been one case in Austria. In all cases, the refusal to sign the bills was clearly triggered by very obvious procedural errors or violations of basic constitutional principles. Nevertheless, the practical relevance should not be underestimated.

Although German presidents have only refused their signature under a bill once every ten years, the possibility of the president’s refusal to sign a bill accompanies most debates about controversial legislation, e.g. the recent passage of new regulations on the remuneration of members of the Bundestag. Even by delaying the signature under a bill and speculating about a pocket veto, presidents might able to extract concessions on related legislation in the future. In Austria, incumbent president Heinz Fischer was the first refusing to sign a bill, meaning that even after 60 years of constitutional practice in which presidents routinely played a subordinate role to the government president are able to curb out new powers.  Furthermore, similar to Germany the possibility of a pocket veto has also become part of Austrian debates about legislation.

For now, it is unlikely that parliaments or governments in either country will approach constitutional courts to have presidents’ compentencies clarified as it is possible that the court will provide unfavourable interpretation of the constitution and extend presidential powers. Nevertheless, at the same time the fact that a decision could also be taken in parliaments’ or governments’ favour should ensure that presidents do not use their power more frequently.

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[1] The Slovenian president also has no veto power, yet regulations differ from the Austrian and German examples.
[2] Tavits, Margit. 2008. Presidents and Prime Ministers. Do direct elections matter? Oxford: OPU. p 81.

Who’s in charge when the president is gone? Acting presidents in European republics

The premature termination of a presidential term – be it by impeachment, resignation or death of the incumbent – is generally a rare phenomenon so that the respective regulations belong the constitutional provisions that are applied least often in political practice. Nevertheless, in recent years a number of European republics had to activate these stipulations, often for the first time. This post compares the regulations on acting presidents in European republics and discusses the consequences for the separation of powers and potential for conflict.

Acting German Federal President, Speaker of the Federal Council and Minister-President of Bavaria Horst Seehofer in 2012 | © German Presidential Office

The resignations of German Federal Presidents Horst Köhler in 2010 and Christian Wulff in 2012 presented the first instances in which speakers of the Bundesrat had to take over presidential duties. Similarly, the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczyński in 2010 was the first event in post-1989 Poland that required the Sejm Marshal (speaker of the lower house) to temporarily fulfil the role of president. In Romania, the two impeachment attempts against president Traian Basescu in 2007 and 2012 also meant that the speaker of the Senate acted as president while the population was consulted in referenda. On the other hand, when Slovak president Schuster needed to receive specialist treatment in an Austrian hospital in 2000, the speaker of parliament and Prime Minister fulfilled his duties in tandem.

The above examples show that European republics show a great variation in who becomes acting president. In fact, Bulgaria and Switzerland are the only European republics with a functioning vice-presidency (although due to the collegial nature of the Swiss executive its position/relevance differs significantly) [1] and In the remaining countries it is not always obvious who takes over presidential duties in the case of presidential impeachment, resignation or death. The default option is to temporarily devolve the function to a representative of parliament (in all but Bulgaria, Finland and Switzerland representatives of parliament are involved), yet even here differences exist that have consequences for the division of power.

In France, Germany, Italy and Romania the speaker of the second chamber of parliament. As – except for Italy – the government is not responsible to the second chamber this arrangement guarantees a mutual independence of acting president and other institutions. Even though Austria and Poland also have bicameral system, presidential duties here are performed by the speakers of the first chamber and thus by politicians that are more prominent in everyday politics and usually belong to the governing party. In Austria this is partly mitigated by the fact that the speaker and the two deputy speakers perform this role together, yet in Poland the stipulation proved to be controversial – not only because the generally more political role of the Polish Sejm Marshal but also because of the fact that acting president Komorowski was the government’s candidate in the presidential elections. In the Czech Republic, likewise a bicameral system, presidential duties are also fulfilled by the speaker of the first chamber, yet in cooperation with the Prime Minister.

Map_of_EU_presidents away2_

Countries with unicameral systems cannot generally choose a more independent political candidate, yet as the examples of Iceland and Ireland show it is still possible to create less political alternative by pairing them (among others) with the Chairman of the Supreme Court in multi-member committees that jointly fulfil the position of acting president. Estonia shows another way of ensuring independence of the speaker of parliament as acting president in a unicameral system. The constitution foresees that speaker of parliament temporarily gives up their function to act as president and a new speaker is elected for that period to maintain a clear separation of powers.[2] Last, only Finland and Malta place the role of acting president in the hands of the Prime Minister which is even more exceptional when considering the great differences between the two political systems.

The comparison above has shown that variations in who becomes acting president do not vary according to the mode of presidential election or presidential powers and their origin often predate the current political system. An example for this are the regulations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia which both based their regulations on constitutional drafts that still were still designed for the countries’ functioning within a federal Czechoslovakia. Once the break-up was agreed and quick adoption of new constitutions was needed, the presidency was merely added and the actors that previously represented the republic at federation level became the designated acting presidents (Slovakia only introduced a co-role for the speaker of parliament in 1998 as it turned out that the constitution did not transfer enough power to the Prime Minister as acting president to maintain a functioning state after parliament failed to elect a new president).

The question of who is in charge when the president is gone might appear relatively insignificant at first glance given the rarity of early terminations of presidential terms or long-term absence of presidents during their term. Nevertheless, the different stipulations strongly affect the degree to which the presidency can or is likely to still fulfil its function as check-and-balance on other institutions while it is vacant. While this becomes more relevant the longer there is a vacancy in the presidential office, it still changes the balance of power within a political system already in the short term and therefore merits attention. For instance, during the one month that Slovak president Rudolf Schuster spent in hospital in Austria in 2000, Prime Minister Dzurinda and National Council speaker used their position as acting presidents to veto three bills to which Schuster had previously declared his opposition. Only shortly afterwards, the government majority passed the bills again and thus made sure that Schuster could no longer veto the bills or request a review before the constitutional court.

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[1] The Cypriot constitution also institutes a vice-presidency which is reserved for a Turkish Cypriot while the post of president is to be held by a Greek Cypriot. Initially a Turkish Cypriot vice-president served alongside a Greek Cypriot president, yet the vice-presidency has been vacant for about 50-40 years. The start date of the vacancy is difficult to establish – while Turkish Cypriots have not participated in government or parliament since the 1963 crisis, the title of vice-president appears to have been used by Turkish Cypriot leaders until the coup d’état in 1974.
[2] Estonian members of government are also required to give up their place in parliament upon appointment and another MP enters parliament in their place for the time of their appointment.

Two grand coalitions formed – Austria and Germany

During the past week, Conservatives and Social Democrats in both Austria and Germany finally agreed on the formation on so-called ‘grand coalitions’. While a coalition of the two largest parties has been nothing new for Austria (since WWII both parties have only ever not been in a coalition between 1966-1986 and 2000-2006), in Germany it is only the third pairing of this kind since 1949 and the second since German unification in 1990. Nevertheless, the government formation process turned out to be lengthy not only in Germany, but also in Austria.

Seat distribution in the Austrian National Council and German Bundestag_presidential-power.com

In Austria, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have been the senior partner in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) coalition since 2007. Both parties suffered losses in the elections and despite the announcement of the ÖVP to also hold talks with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ; a coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ had resulted in international outrage in 1999/2000) a continuation of the grand coalition was the only practicable option. The main difficulties in the negotiations were not only policy differences between parties but also the budgetary deficit and the SPÖ’s insistence on a leading role (despite having won only 5 more seats than the ÖVP). In early December, ÖVP even appealed to President Heinz Fischer to ease coalition talks (a surprising step given the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian president and the fact that Fischer himself is a SPÖ member).

In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian and Social Union (CSU), fell only four seats short of an absolute majority and it was thus clear that they would be part of the next coalition. After their previous junior coalition partner, the (economically & socially) liberal Free Democrats (FDP) failed to enter parliament, CDU/CSU held talks with both the Social Democrats (SPD; second largest party in parliament) and the Greens, yet eventually opted for coalition talks with the SPD. Here, too, the insistence of the CDU/CSU to impose their policy proved to be a hindrance, although the most controversial topic turned out to the – overall less significant – introduction of tolls on German motorways that would only apply to foreigners (a measure proposed by CSU chairman Seehofer). Eventually, the SPD moved to ask its 475,000 members for approval of the coalition treaty (the threat of which had allowed them pursue a two-level bargaining strategy and arguably push through more of their demands) which further lengthened the process. As 76% of voting members (70% turnout) voted for the coalition, the SPD emerges from the risky manoeuvre with new strength.

duration of government formation process_Austria_Germany
Source: Diermeier, D., P. Van Roozendaal.(1998) “The duration of cabinet formation processes in western multi-party democracies.” British Journal of Political Science 28.4: 609-626; own additions

In effect, coalition talks in both countries lasted much longer than the average of years past. In Germany, the formation took almost twice as long as the average duration of post-election government formations (and still 21 days longer than the formation of the last grand coalition in 2005). In Austria, the formation process only lasted a good three weeks longer than the post-WWII average (although it needs to be noted that the average in the last 20 years has been 82 days, so that the formation of the new government appears to have been accomplished slightly faster than this more recent average).

As shown below, the final distribution of ministries largely confirmed Gamson’s Law (the nominal under-representation of the SPÖ and CDU is balanced by the fact that their candidate becomes chancellor; the over-representation of the CSU as the smallest party also belongs to the known exceptions to the law). 

government party seat share and portfolio allocation

In Austria, the nomination of 27 year-old Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) as foreign minister came as a surprise to many (the ministry had previously been headed by ÖVP chairman and deputy chancellor Spindelegger who became finance minister). The fact that there will be no minister exclusively responsible for science and research has also prompted some discussion among and resistance from academics. In Germany, most speculations about ministerial nominees proved true (although parties waited with the official announcement until the SPD members’ vote on the coalition treaty had passed), the only real surprise being the nomination of the potential Merkel successors Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) as minister of defense. For a full list of cabinet members see below:

Austria
Chancellor: Werner Faymann (SPÖ, male, 53)
Deputy Chancellor/Finance: Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP, male, 53)
Family & Youth: Sophie Karmasin (ÖVP, female, 46)
Justice: Wolfgang Brandstetter (ÖVP, male, 56)
Foreign Affairs & Integration: Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP, male, 27)
Agriculture: Andrä Rupprechter (ÖVP, male, 49)
Economy & Science: Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP, male, 58)
Interior: Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP, female, 49)
Social Affairs: Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ, male, 63)
Education & Women: Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek (SPÖ, female, 52)
Infrastructure: Doris Bures (SPÖ, female, 51)
Defence: Gerald Klug (SPÖ, male, 45)
Health: Alois Stöger (SPÖ, male, 53)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Josef Ostermayer (SPÖ, male, 52)

Germany
Chancellor: Angela Merkel (CDU, female, 59)
Deputy Chancellor/Economy & Energy: Sigmar Gabriel (SPD, male, 54)
Foreign Affairs: Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD, male, 57)
Finance: Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU, male, 71)
Interior: Thomas de Maizere (CDU, male, 59)
Defence: Ursula von der Leyen (CDU, female, 55)
Labour: Andrea Nahles (SPD, female, 43)
Health: Herrman Gröhe (CDU, male, 52)
Justice & Consumer Protection: Heiko Maas (SPD, male, 47)
Family, Youth & Pensioners: Manuela Schwesig (SPD, female, 39)
Science & Research: Johanna Wanka (CDU, female, 62)
Environment: Barbara Hendricks (SPD, female, 61)
Infrastructure & Internet: Alexander Dobrindt (CSU, male, 43)
Foreign Aid: Gerd Müller (CSU, male, 58)
Agriculture: Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU, male, 56)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Peter Altmeier (CDU, male, 55)

The role of presidents in government formation – Austria and Germany

by Philipp Köker

In the last month both Germany and Austria elected new federal parliaments; however, in neither case did the outcome predicate a particular coalition between political parties. In Germany, the failure of the (economically and socially) liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) to enter parliament has meant that the clear election winners – Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, CSU – are left without their previous coalition partner. In Austria, Social Democrats and the People’s Party (ÖVP) received just enough votes to continue the ‘grand coalition’. Nevertheless, the ÖVP’s announcement to also conduct coalition talks with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and eurosceptic ‘Team Stronach’ has called its continuation – at least temporarily – into question.

Party leaders in both countries are still in the phase of exploratory talks, but Austrian president Heinz Fischer (SPÖ) and his German counterpart Joachim Gauck (non-partisan) have already met with party leaders to discuss the election results and hear about progress in forming a new government. This post will provide a brief comparison of the presidents’ powers in government formation after elections and assess the likeliness of presidential interference.

Formal powers

The powers of the Austrian president in the area of government formation are far-reaching and extend beyond those in other semi-presidential democracies. The constitution stipulates that the president appoints the Chancellor and on the Chancellor’s proposal other members of government. Due to Austria’s ‘negative parliamentarianism’ there is no vote of investiture for but the Chancellor and cabinet members are sworn into office by the president and then have to ‘present themselves’ to parliament within seven days.

In comparison, the German president’s formal powers are much more limited. The president proposes a candidate for Chancellor to parliament who then has to be elected by an absolute majority. If the president’s candidate is unable to garner support from a majority of deputies, it is parliament’s turn to propose and elect another candidate within the next fourteen days. Even if parliament fails to elect a new Chancellor in this time period, there is a final vote in which a candidate is elected by relative majority. Only then has the German president some leeway in decision-making as s/he can decide whether to appoint a candidate elected by relative majority (any candidate by absolute majority has to be appointed) or dissolve parliament.

The realities of the systems

As most other parliamentary and semi-presidential constitutions, the German Basic Law and the Austrian Federal Constitutional Law do not formally restrict presidents in their choice of candidate for the head of government. Nevertheless, both presidents are limited by the political realities of the systems.

In Austria, parliament can remove the government by the ways of a no-confidence motion at any time and the president thus needs to nominate a formateur who is able to negotiate a majority coalition. While the constitution does not specify a deadline until which the president has to nominate a new Chancellor, a government without a majority would likely be incapable of governing. Except for 1999, Austrian presidents have thus always nominated the representative of the largest party in parliament (although there have been about half a dozen cases where presidents opposed particular candidates for cabinet posts) and no government has had to face a no-confidence motion right after its appointment.

In Germany, presidents have also rather waited for the end of coalition negotiations between parties to then propose the candidate for Chancellor who has a majority behind them. Yet as parliament can elect its own candidate after the rejecting the president’s choice, the nomination is less consequential. Furthermore, the stipulation of a ‘constructive’ vote of no-confidence means that parliament can only dismiss a Chancellor/government by simultaneously electing new one – leaving the president to merely formalise parties’ actions.

Potential for presidential involvement

Without wanting to speculate about the outcome of government formation in Austria and Germany, the role of presidents will likely be equally marginal. While the Austrian constitution gives the president much more leeway in decision-making, the system has developed into a parliamentary one by all but name. President Fischer might stress the international outcry caused by the inclusion of the far-right FPÖ into the government in 1999 and 2003, yet any interference beyond this will be met with resistance from parties and citizens. Due to constitutional constraints and established political practice, President Gauck will also limit his involvement in the formation of a new German government to urging parties to quickly conclude their negotiations and to overcome the differences stressed during the electoral campaign.

More on the results of the German elections and the Austrian elections on the website of The Economist.