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.

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