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EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

This year Austrians will vote in the Federal Presidential election, but how does the process work, and who could be the next President?

Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen
Austria's President Alexander Van der Bellen could put himself forward for a second term. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The federal presidential election will take place in autumn 2022 as Alexander Van der Bellen (who represents the Green Party) reaches the end of his six-year term as president. 

Van der Bellen is yet to announce if he will stand for a second term, although he is tipped as a strong contender if he does decide to run again.

In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know about the upcoming election and what could happen later this year.

What does the Austrian President actually do?

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

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

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

In some ways, Austria’s president is compared to the role of the Queen 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.

Austria’s current president, Van der Bellen, was inaugurated into the role on January 26th 2017 after winning the election in autumn 2016. Van der Bellen is a member of the Green Party and a former member of the Vienna State Parliament and Vienna City Council.

He has had more to do than the average president due to the frequent changes of government, having signed 152 swearing-in documents including appointing new chancellors, vice chancellors, ministers and state secretaries

What is the presidential electoral process in Austria?

Austrian citizens (aged 16 and over) vote in presidential elections every six years and Austria’s Federal President is eligible for two elected terms.

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 from families that have 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 Federal President.

FOR MEMBERS: What’s in Austria’s vaccine mandate bill?

To become a candidate for the role of President, names must be submitted to the federal electoral authority at least 30 days before the election date, along with a fee of €3,600. Each nomination has to be signed by 6,000 eligible voters.

Following the vote, the elected Federal President is sworn in with an oath in front of the Federal Assembly. The oath states that the president will “faithfully observe the Constitution and all the laws of the Republic”.

Who could be the next President in Austria?

Some political figures have already spoken out in favour of Van der Bellen running for a second term, such as President of the Austrian National Council Wolfgang Sobotka (of the governing conservative People’s Party, ÖVP) and centre-left SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner.

READ MORE: Who is Karl Nehammer, Austria’s new Chancellor?

There is some support within the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) that van der Bellen should be cleared for re-election without an opposing candidate, to offer the country some stability

However, Governor of Burgenland Hans-Peter Doskozil (SPÖ) has said the announcement of an opposition candidate would send a strong message to the Austrian population that the country is a “self-confident social democracy”.

And Van der Bellen himself hasn’t said whether he even wants to put himself forward for another term.

Additionally, there are rumours that Norbert Hofer, former leader of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), could run for Federal President again (he was defeated by Van der Bellen in 2016). Hofer recently told Die Presse that if he does decide to become a candidate he will make the announcement nearer the time of the autumn election.

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UKRAINE

‘No country is an island’: Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As the war in Ukraine continues, questions are starting to surface about Austria’s defence capabilities - especially regarding Austria’s permanently neutral status. Does neutrality protect Austria - or are things in need of a shakeup?

'No country is an island': Is it time Austria abandoned neutrality?

As a neutral country, Austria is not a member of a global military alliance and is committed to a stance of engaged neutrality. 

But Austria’s position is now being called into question following the recent publication of an open letter to Austria’s Federal President, Federal Government and National Council. 

READ MORE: Majority of Austrians reject joining NATO

The letter was initiated by co-founder of the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) and publishing manager Veit Dengler, and former Supreme Court President and ex-NEOS politician Irmgard Griss. Supporters include military and economic experts, as well as Austrian authors and former ambassadors.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Austria’s politicians have held the line that Austria is a neutral country and always will be.

But it remains to be seen how that will look amid changing security concerns across Europe.

Here’s what you need to know.

What was in the open letter?

The open letter called for “a serious, nationwide discussion about Austria’s future security and defence policy in light of the war in Ukraine and the adoption of a new security doctrine”.

The letter, which was published in German and English, said: “Our neutrality – interpreted very flexibly in practice – was never checked for its current expediency, but raised to the supposedly untouchable myth. 

“As an EU member and participant in the EU’s common security and defence policy, Austria is already obliged to show solidarity. Given the current threat, there needs to be a debate without blinkers.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

Martin Senn, Professor of International relations at the University of Innsbruck and Lecturer at the Vienna School of International Studies, told The Local that he approves of the letter and that it’s time for Austria to have a discussion about defence.
 
Senn said: “It makes a very important point that the government should think hard about how Austria’s security can be maintained in the long term.
 
“Security and defence has always been a marginal issue in Austria, and it should change. In my view, it’s important for Austria to come to terms with the tensions between neutrality and solidarity in Europe. 
 
“For example, what would Austria do in the case that another EU country was attacked? This then leads to the question of what type of armed forces do we need.”

The authors of the letter called for the creation of an independent group of experts to lead a debate on the future of Austria’s security and defence policy, adding that the discussion should be open to all Austrians.

Could Austria’s neutrality be changed?

The short answer is yes, it’s possible for Austria to become a non-neutral country. But the reality is more complex.

From a Federal Government perspective, Chancellor Karl Nehammer, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) and Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP) have all recently reiterated Austria’s commitment to neutrality.

Senn is also sceptical about Austria abandoning its neutral stance any time soon, despite concerns about security in Europe.

He said: “The threshold for abandoning neutrality is high – it would need a two thirds majority in parliament and the population is in favour of neutrality.

“Politicians are in a quagmire because the population has high esteem of neutrality and so political parties won’t invest political capital to change it.” 

READ ALSO: What would an embargo on Russian oil mean for Austria?

However, if a decision was ever made to change Austria’s neutral status, it would involve a similar process to adopting neutrality.

Senn said: “The current legal interpretation holds that other countries would have to be notified but they wouldn’t have any veto power.

“Our neutrality is not an international treaty, it was installed through a national legal act and other countries were notified. Abolishing neutrality would work in the same way.”

But altering Austria’s neutrality would come down to political and public support, of which there is very little right now.

A recent survey for Austria’s APA press agency revealed only 14 percent of Austrians were in favour of joining NATO and 52 percent believe neutrality protects Austria.

What is the current situation regarding military defence in Austria?

According to the defence policy of the Austrian Armed Forces, the primary objective of the military is the defence of Austria, its people and their livelihoods on the principles of a militia system (a reserve of militarily trained people). 

Austria is also a member of the EU which is covered by Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty – a clause that states all members must provide each other with aid and assistance in the event of armed aggression towards another member. 

Senn said: “Austria could participate in a mutual defence scenario, for example Austria could legally support Poland militarily if it was attacked.

“There is an article in the constitution that says Austria can participate in the common security and defence policy of Europe, which includes militarily.”

There is an exception to the Lisbon Treaty though (known as the Irish Clause) to allow neutral countries like Austria to opt out of providing military support in such a situation. 

Senn said: “Austria can remain neutral if it wants to, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a matter of political determination.”

Another aspect of Austria’s defence strategy is the country’s geographical location in Central Europe – surrounded by NATO member countries and neutral Switzerland.

Senn said: “There is no immediate conventional threat to Austria, but no country is an island and therefore we should think more about what we need to defend Austria and Europe as a whole.”

Austria’s current defence policy, which was published in 2014, states 55,000 soldiers are required to complete the objectives of the Armed Forces. This includes 12,500 soldiers listed in the ÖSS for disaster relief operations in Germany, 100 security experts and 1,100 soldiers posted on overseas missions.

A recent article in Der Standard by Veit Dengler about Austria’s neutrality said: “It is not clear what the mission and the tasks of the army are. 

“It is completely inadequately equipped for a serious defence situation like that in Ukraine. We are not mentally prepared either: we have no consensus that we are part of the alliance called the EU.”

Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

Austria’s long-standing neutrality goes back to the post-World War II years.

In 1955, when the last foreign troops left Austria, parliament adopted the constitutional law on the Neutrality of Austria, committing the country to permanent neutral status.

READ MORE: Why is Austria not a member of NATO?

The law cemented certain provisions from the Austria State Treaty signed by the government and representatives of the allied forces, which paved the way for the foreign armies to leave the country.

As per the Treaty, Austria can’t join a military alliance, allow the establishment of foreign military bases within its borders or participate in a war. However, Austria’s neutrality status was adapted after joining the EU to align with the country’s commitments to the bloc.

Austria has also actively participated in peacekeeping operations in war torn countries, particularly in the Balkans, as part of its commitment to engaged neutrality and cooperation with NATO through the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme.

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