COM 04/2016

Austria’s Presidential Elections 2016

Reinhold Gärtner, Professor, Department of Political Science, Universität Innsbruck


The Austrian president has to be elected every six years with the possibility of one re-election. So Heinz Fischer’s period in office ended in 2016 (he was elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2010).

According to the constitution from 1929, the Austrian president has some very important roles to fulfil, among these are the nomination and inauguration  of  a new government. In practice, though, the presidents have so far passed on this nomination to the head of the strongest party in parliamentary elections (Nationalratswahlen). This is called Rollenverzicht.

As soon as a future chancellor presents a new government, the president swears this in.

Besides, the president has – as others in comparable positions – the duty of representing the country towards other countries and of acting as a person of integration in Austria.

The president is being elect directly by the electorate via absolute majority vote. If no candidate gets 50% plus 1 in the first round, there is (comparable to France) a run off four weeks later between the two most successful candidates of the first round. The first direct election was in 1951 (Theodor Körner) and so far Austria has done well with Körner and almost all of the other presidents.

In 1986, there was a serious dispute, though, at the election of Kurt Waldheim, a former high- ranking member of Deutsche Wehrmacht. Despite of allegations, Waldheim was elected as president in 1986. Though he had been UN-Secretary General between 1971 and 1981, his name was put on the US-watch list and he was no longer allowed to enter the USA after 1987. Waldheim was isolated during his period in office and did not run for re-election in 1992.

If the president would not perform the Rollenverzicht, this could and would lead to a standoff between president and parliament, as the parliament has a vote of no confidence towards the government. Even if the president is – according to the constitution – the highest ranking politician in Austria, he is usually not involved in every day politics and accepts that the most powerful politician is the chancellor. Logically, Austria is represented in the EU-council by the chancellor (as Germany) and not by the president (as France).

This year’s election was held on April 24th and it was to be expected that no candidate would make it in the first round. There were six candidates, among them Irmgard Griss, an independent, who seemed to have chances of reaching the run-off. The candidates of SPÖ (Socialdemocrats), Rudolf Hundsdorfer and ÖVP (People’s Party), Andreas Khol were unlikely to be successful, despite the fact that both, SPÖ and ÖVP, are members of the present coalition government. The right wing populist FPÖ (Freedom Party) nominated Norbert Hofer and Alexander van der Bellen, former head of the Green party, was running for election, too. The performance of both Hundsdorfer and Khol in the election campaign was very week and both were not strongly supported by their parties.

So the results of the first round were remarkable in more respects: First, neither Hundsdorfer nor Khol made it in the run off; moreover the results of the candidates of the governmental parties were very, very moderate. They could gain 11.3 per cent (Hundsdorfer) and 11.1 per cent (Khol) respectively– combined 22.4 per cent for the government’s candidates. Up to 2016, six out of eight presidents had been nominated by SPÖ (Renner, Körner, Schärf, Jonas, Kirchschläger, Fischer) and two by ÖVP (Waldheim, Klestil). In 20106 neither of these parties was able to reach at least the run off.

Second, Irmgard Griss, an independent former judge and head of the Supreme Court of Justice, could get some 19 per cent – almost as much as both candidates from SPÖ and ÖVP.

Third, the run off was to be a challenge between an FPÖ candidate, thus the candidate of a right wing populist party, and a (former) head of the Green party. Hofer won the first round with remarkable 35 per cent, while van der Bellen got 21.3 per cent. Therefore, the chances for Hofer and the FPÖ to have its first president were not bad at all. During the following campaign, neither of the candidates did reach a considerable lead, thus everything pointed at a very close race between the two of them.

Finally, in the evening of May 22nd, neither Hofer nor van der Bellen had the lead and it was voting by mail that would bring the final decision.

In the afternoon of May 23rd it became more and more visible that van der Bellen would be the next president and finally the minister of the interior announced the result of 50.3 per cent van der Bellen and 49.7 per cent Hofer.

Media and political elites of foreign countries carefully observed the election because Hofer is a stout representative of a definitely right wing populist party and had an authoritarian understanding of the performance of the president’s duties (like joining the EU council instead of the chancellor). Hofer also pointed out that he would dismiss the government if it would not perform in favour of Austria (though he did not really explain what was meant by that).

As far as voters are concerned, there were some remarkable results: People in urban areas were likely to vote for van der Bellen. More than 60 per cent not only in Vienna but also in other major cities like Linz, Graz, Innsbruck or Bregenz and between 50 and 60 per cent in the other capitals Eisenstadt, Salzburg, Klagenfurt or St. Pölten voted van der Bellen. More men than women voted for Hofer, and people with better education were more likely to vote for van der Bellen than for Hofer.

Among those voting by mail, van der Bellen had a lead of some 61 per cent to some 39 per cent for Hofer. Voting by mail, though, was even before the Election Day criticised by FPÖ-representatives and because of obvious irregularities Strache and FPÖ litigated the election result. Therefore, the Constitutional Court has to decide upon the FPÖ charges and right now, it is doubtful if there will be a final decision until July 8th, the day when Heinz Fischer will resign from office and the future president can be sworn in.

What we might face in the future is a discussion about voting by mail; unsurprisingly it is FPÖ which would like to abolish voting by mail (which was introduce in 2007), because FPÖ usually gets a percentage of these votes which is far below average.

Moreover, maybe we will discuss the president’s role, too. One possibility would be to change the constitutionals rights and to adopt them in order to prevent a political blockade and a possible struggle for power between presidents on the one hand and government/chancellor on the other.

Another problem was the fact that in Austria the polling stations close at different times – some earlier, some later. Results must not be made public before the closure of the last polling station. Media, though, usually get pieces of information from the Ministry of Interior prior to that – with a clearly defined holdback period.

The Constitutional Court in its ruling of 1 July pointed out that though there were no manipulations to be found and the result thus was not to be challenged, election rules have  to  be  fulfilled  painstakingly.

So, the Court decided that the election will have to be repeated on grounds of irregularities of the count of the votes – in late September or early October 2016.