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Austrian presidential elections: What exactly does the president do?

Austria is set to choose a new president in early October what is the actual role of the president, when the country already has a chancellor?

Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen (R) delivers a speech as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (C) looks on during a ceremony to unveil a monument to the victims of World War II. Sergei GAPON / AFP
Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen (R) delivers a speech as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (C) looks on during a ceremony to unveil a monument to the victims of World War II. Sergei GAPON / AFP

Austria’s presidential election will take place on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president.

According to opinion polls, the favourite to win is the current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running for reelection. Austrian citizens aged 16 and over can vote in the elections, and the Federal President is eligible for two elected terms (each lasting for six years).

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.

Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Who are the seven candidates?

What does the Austrian President do?

The Federal President is the chief diplomat in Austria – essentially the head of state of the Austrian Republic and the representation of democracy in the country.

The president is responsible for protecting democracy in Austria, providing moral support to the country, assisting in integrating minorities into the political process, and swearing in and dismissing parliament.

To become the president of Austria, candidates should have an extensive political background and a non-partisan (unbiased) approach to politics.

In some ways, Austria’s president is compared to the role of Queens and Kings in the UK and any political power is often viewed as symbolic. For example, the president is not expected to intervene in the daily running of government but can make an appeal in certain situations.

READ ALSO: Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

According to the president’s office, “The Federal President is at the service of all Austrian citizens. He is the only state representative on the federal level to be elected directly by the citizens. This places the President in a strong position within the constitutional framework, as he is backed by a majority of the electorate.”

Austria’s Chancellor, who leads the government is elected by a parliamentary vote following national elections.

The Federal President represents Austria internationally and can direct the implementation of treaties by issuing ordinances.

As the representative of Austria, the Federal President is expected to make statements and announcements in historical times, such as Van der Bellen’s statement honouring Queen Elizabeth II after her death.

Federal powers

The president also has powers regarding federal legislation, including the ability to convoke and dissolve the National Council (Austria’s parliament). They can also order referenda and public consultations.

Regarding the government, the Federal President must appoint, swear in and dismiss Federal Ministers – though this is usually done at the request of the ruling parties and chancellors. They also swear in governors of Austria’s federal states and have the power to dissolve state parliaments.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Why 1.4 million people can’t vote

Crises and the Armed forces

The Federal President can remove the seat of the highest federal authorities from Vienna to another location within the federal territory for the duration of extraordinary circumstances. Additionally, they can convene the National Council at a place within the federal territory other than Vienna for the course of extraordinary circumstances.

The president also has the authority to issue provisional law-amending ordinances.

The Federal President serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Armed Forces and can appoint army officers.

Judiciary System

There are several duties of the Federal President regarding the judiciary system. Besides appointing and swearing in judges, public prosecutors and other court members have to “enforce the judgements of the Constitutional Court”.

Most notably, the Federal President has certain rights of pardon and the right to quash proceedings in individual cases of offences subject to prosecution in court. For example, they have the authority to stop criminal proceedings and mitigate and commute sentences imposed by the courts, among others.

READ ALSO: Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

Finally, the Federal President can also grant several honorary privileges and awards.

Can the Federal President refuse to certify federal laws?

According to the office of the president: “The Federal President certifies that laws have been passed following the Constitution. If the resolution has been passed in a manifestly unconstitutional manner, he must refuse to certify it.”

In cases of doubt, the president is also supposed to certify federal laws in order to allow for a subsequent review by the Constitutional Court.

Can the Federal President dismiss the Federal Government?

Technically, yes. Politically, the matter is more delicate.

The constitution mandates the president then to appoint a new federal government, which must present itself to the National Council within a week. After that, the National Council can express a vote of no confidence in the new federal government.

READ ALSO: Austrian citizenship: Do you really have to renounce your original nationality?

This means that the Federal President could dismiss the federal government, but politically they have to consider the majority situation in the National Council.

Additionally, the Federal President can dismiss the Federal Chancellor on his own initiative but can only dismiss a minister after a request by the Chancellor.

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Reader question: Can I vote in Austria’s presidential elections?

On October 9th, Austria will vote to elect a new president, but who can vote in these national elections?

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria's presidential elections?

Austria’s presidential election will take place on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president.

According to opinion polls, the favourite to win is the current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running for reelection.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Who are the seven candidates?

A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.

Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.

Who can vote in these elections?

The only people allowed to vote in Austrian federal elections are Austrian citizens aged 16 or above.

That means foreigners – even those born and raised in Austria, are not entitled to choose a new president. Unless, of course, they take up Austrian citizenship (usually giving up their original citizenship).

Since Austria has a large proportion of foreigners in the population, many people will not be able to vote in these elections.

READ ALSO: ‘I pay taxes in Austria’: Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote

In fact, some 18 percent of residents (or 1.4 million people) in Austria over the age of 16 do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens, with the highest concentration of ineligible people in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg.

In comparison, 20 years ago, Austria had just 580,000 people without the right to vote.

Statistics Austria data evaluated by the APA shows that around 30 percent of the voting-age population in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg are not entitled to vote. In Linz and Graz, it is about 25 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

However, there are some smaller communities in Austria where the number of people without the right to vote is even higher.

In Jungholz in Tyrol, 66 percent of the population are not eligible, followed by 51 percent in Mittelberg in Vorarlberg. Kittsee in Burgenland and Wolfsthal in Lower Austria also have high proportions of Slovakian residents who cannot vote.

Austrian citizenship

Currently, in Austria, if someone wants to take up citizenship via naturalisation, they must undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least ten years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. But there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality, but could reach thousands of euros.

And though the topic of easing the requirements has come up several times in Austria, the country doesn’t seem any closer to changing its citizenship laws.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

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