Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Interview with Prof Welan on Austrian Presidency

Go-Governances Melanie Sully talked to constitutional expert Prof Dr Welan on the changing role of the Austrian Federal Presidency in advance of the 2016 direct elections for this office as head of state.

2016 sees the direct election by the people of the Austrian Federal President and the race is already on with speculation of possible candidates. A leading constitutional expert, University Professor Dr Manfried Welan, spoke with Go-Governances Melanie Sully on the role of the Presidency as understood in the Austrian context.

MS: How has the role of the office of Federal President changed over time particularly in relation to the head of government, the Federal Chancellor?

MW: The question of the relationship between Federal President and Chancellor in Austria has to be taken in historical context and with regard to the political culture of the country dominated by two big camps (Red SPÖ and Black ÖVP). In practice the Austrian party system has been shaped by not only the constitution but importantly by the socalled “Realverfassung” characterised by the Great Coalition and Social Partnership.

Although the constitution had been changed in 1929 to allow for a popular vote of the President, it was not until 1951 that this took place. He fulfilled then dutifully the agenda of the Great Coalition and forestalled the development of the Third Lager in Austria (right wing German nationalist liberal). The balance between the big two was expressed in the fact that the Blacks possessed the Chancellorship and the Reds the post of Federal President and both had a mutual interest in stopping the Third Lager. This state of affairs continued throughout most of the early years of the Second Republic and conflicts such as they were, were muted and little surfaced to the general public. To a large degree it was the Chancellor who chose the President as for example under Kreisky (Chancellor and Party leader) who favoured his own secretary Kirchschläger, a non-party stout Catholic. Austria as a typical consensus democracy exhibited few conflicts to talk of with regard to the head of state and executive.

MS: But the relationship between the posts of Federal President and Chancellor, head of government, changed in the 1980s?

MW: An internationally known clash between the two posts of course occurred with Waldheim who had already stood unsuccessfully as a presidential candidate and was elected twice as UN General Secretary with the support of Bruno Kreisky. The furore over his wartime past therefore seemed a mystery to many in Austria and Waldheim became a symbol in a battle which transcended his person and became enmeshed in an examination of Austrias own past. With the President and country internationally isolated, it was the Chancellor who in effect exercised the duties of the President by travelling abroad, a task he enjoyed as a rather positive side effect of the conflict. Disputes existed between the President and an Historians Commission was set up to investigate the case. At this time a debate took place in the media and public on the relevance of the institution of head of state per se.

The head of government is normally in a rather weak position and the Ministers can exercise greater influence especially the Finance Minister. He or she can stop or green light legislation whilst the Chancellor is more dependent on the party for retaining the job. In the SPÖ the Chancellor was also at the same time party chairman; also in the ÖVP with an exception that proved unsuccessful this was the case.

MS: Moving on what can be said of the office under President Klestil (Federal President from 1992-2004)

MW: As we progress to look at the later period there are some strands of continuity eg under Klestil there was still the old cache of stopping the Third Lager but other often bitter conflicts of a personal nature were emerging eg between Klestil and Wolfgang Schüssel. Ultimately President Klestil was in clinch with most of the parties for different reasons. He supported greater elements of direct democracy rejected by the SPÖ (especially by the current President Heinz Fischer) and Klestil was of the opinion the parties should be pushed back in an effort to curb corruption and he saw himself justified by the fact that he was popularly elected. With the ÖVP he fell out as a result of his secret affair and subsequent divorce and since he was an ardent advocate of social partnership there was no loss of love between him and the Greens. In addition parliament had made three ranked suggestions for the post of Constitutional Court judge, a decision taken unanimously in parliament and Klestil reversed the order preferring a female candidate. As a result the constitution was changed to deprive the Federal President in the future of this possibility. Klestil emerged humiliated with even less powers than before. With his obvious distaste for the right of centre coalition ÖVP/FPÖ he continued the tradition of supporting the Great Coalition with a view to stopping the FPÖ, the third Lager.

MS: And what of the incumbent and the future; can a President be choosy about the appointment of the federal government or are they bound by the constitution?

MW: The current President Fischer also is an adherent of the Great Coalition and there has been speculation as to what he would/could do in the event of a socalled flying coalition should a majority emerge in parliament between the FPÖ and ÖVP. He could instead nominate a technocratic or expert or government composed of civil servants to do the job in times of crises (migrants and refugees), he could veto individual ministers (as Klestil did with the FPÖ) or he could opt for a minority SPÖ government. Thus the tension between the head of state and parliament is unresolved.

As the big two parties become ever smaller and new ones sprout up the Federal President could theoretically play a greater political role. But the parties in turn nominate the candidates for the presidential race.

MS: Prof Welan, thank you very much for this insight.

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