President, Federal Republic

   The presidential office in Austria’s federal government was an innovation of the First Republic. As in many other European parliamentary regimes between the two world wars, the position was at first ceremonial. Changes in the Austrian constitution after 1929 gave presidents more authority to intervene in federal and local politics, and their actions, or failure to act in the crisis-ridden 1930s, hastened the First Republic’s descent into right-wing dictatorship even before the Anschluss with Nazi Germany in 1938. Federal President Wilhelm Miklas accepted the legally questionable suppression of parliamentary rule by Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss after legislative deliberations ground to a standstill in March 1933 because no one would serve as presiding officer in the lower house. In March 1938, Miklas did, however, refuse to sign the announcement of Austria’s unification with Germany. As federal president from 1945 to 1950, Karl Renner played an important role in restoring parliamentary democracy to Austria. He was, however, given his office by the provisional parliament and not by general popular mandate.
   Direct election of presidents of the Austrian Republic was restored in 1951. Their term of office is six years. Though they are not prohibited from running at some future date, they may have no more than two consecutive terms. They are not altogether powerless. Although they cannot intervene directly in administrative and legislative affairs, they can reject high ministerial nominations without reason and dismiss the chancellor and the entire government. Presidents may also declare a state of emergency, though only after the government requests it. They can bestow honors, grant pardons, and the like, but only after consulting with the appropriate ministers. In the case of state honors, the president’s wishes are normally respected. Though candidates for the Austrian presidency normally carry some kind of party identification, they do not have to in order to run for election. Perhaps the most successful and cherished president of the Second Republic, Rudolf Kirchschläger, ran with no party label. Austrians seem to prefer such an outlook in their chief executives. People holding the office do engage in public philosophical discourse, particularly when opening conferences, festivals, and other special occasions. Thomas Klestil (1932–2004), federal president 1992–2004, made speaking for Austria in world affairs a central mission of his career. Nevertheless, Austrian presidents can be very controversial. Most problematic, by far, was the presidency from 1986 to 1992 of Kurt Waldheim. Dogged by accusations of covering up his complicity in Nazi military atrocities, he was elected only in a second round of voting. Although Klestil, his successor, also went through the same process to win his first term in office, his majority in the runoff far exceeded Waldheim’s. When Klestil ran for reelection in 1998, he received 63.5 percent of the first-round vote, second only to the vote the exemplary Rudolf Kirchschläger had received for a second term in 1980: 80 percent of the electorate.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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