Marcelo Jenny – Austria’s President Van der Bellen speaks up

This is a guest post by Univ.-Prof. Mag. Dr. Marcelo Jenny from the Institut für Politikwissenschaft at the University of Innsbruck

Austria belongs to the semi-presidential regime type and the head of state has some strong constitutional powers, but after his election the current president Alexander Van der Bellen has conformed to the familiar role model of Austrian presidents. Of beeing seen as an impartial political authority in reserve by staying away from the day-to-day tug of war between the government and the parliamentary opposition parties. As a consequence the president may be absent from the political news sections for extended periods of time. When Van der Bellen made news with statements on issues of international and domestic policy several times in a row, some started to take notice.

Van der Bellen has been in office since January 2017, after a thrilling election year 2016 that ended with a final win over rival candidate Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in a repeated run-off ballot. The Constitutional Court had annulled the first run-off vote due to voting irregularities. Coming from the most left party in parliament, the Greens, Van der Bellen managed to project himself as a centrist candidate against Hofer who came from the most right party in parliament. Last year’s legislative elections in autumn brought in a right-wing coalition government between the People’s Party led by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Hofer’s Freedom Party. Van der Bellen swore in his previous rival Hofer as the new Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology.

In their presidential campaigns both had been very critical of the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and Canada (CETA), stating that as president they would not sign the treaty. CETA was and still is very unpopular in Austria. Van der Bellen announced last week that he would not sign the free trade agreement after its ratification by the national parliament in June. He clarified that he would not sign now, but rather wait until the European Court of Justice issues a verdict on CETA’s compatibility with European Union law. He is on constitutional safe ground, but it is also a reminder of the president’s political views. The previous government coalition of Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) signed the treaty, against the opposition of Freedom Party and Greens. The current government parties ÖVP and FPÖ, plus the liberals party NEOS, followed through with parliamentary ratification. The SPÖ now in opposition has strongly come out against the treaty, the Freedom Party now unwillingly backs it.

A step deeper into the thicket of domestic politics was Van der Bellen’s recent statement of support for upholding a tradition of social partnership in social and economic policy law-making. The government had just pushed through a controversial law increasing working time flexibility. The bill by-passed the usual process of pre-parliamentary review by interest groups and experts. While interest groups representing business, traditonally politically close to the two parties currently in government were happy with the new law, the labour union federation and the chambers of labour, close to the Social Democratic opposition, came out strongly against it and organized a demonstration of about 100,000 people (which is extraordinary by Austrian standards). The president was later joined by some ÖVP Land governors who also expressed unease about the government’s rushed, controversy-inducing style of policy-making.

The most recent and strongest statement of disapproval with the government came with Van der Bellen’s criticism of FPÖ party general secretary Harald Vilimsky, a Member of the European Parliament, two days ago. Vilimsky demanded the resignation of EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker accusing him of being an alcoholic, which led Bellen to call Vilimsky respectless and foul-mouthed. The president also critized the government under Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz for remaining completely silent on the issue. Austria currently holds the EU presidency. Representatives from the Freedom Party’s representatives then doubled down on their criticism of Juncker and called on Van der Bellen to return to a position of political impartiality.

The episodes of Van der Bellen speaking up might have come together by coincidence and the media attention the president gets is perhaps an unintended consequence of Federal Chancellor Kurz’s media strategy of making himself rare. It remains to be seen whether Van der Bellen will be frequently drawn into political disputes in the future. Yet they remind us of the new political constellation Austria is in with a leftist president facing a right-wing coalition government.

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