29/03/2010 - Analysis
The Austrians are being called to vote on 24th April to elect their President of the Austria. Heinz Fischer, outgoing Head of State announced on 23rd November that he would be standing for another term in office. He indicated that he had decided to do this after "being encouraged by many people of varying political trends". On the day of the presidential election the voters in the Länder of Burgenland and Styria as well as Vienna will also appoint their regional representatives.
The Presidential Office
The President of the Austrian Republic holds a mainly honorary post. The head of state appoints the Prime Minister and the entire government – according to the results of the general elections. He has the power to dissolve the federal government as well as the National Council (Nationalrat), the lower Chamber of Parliament (on the government's request), but these are powers no Head of State has ever used. In 1959, President Adolf Schärf (Social Democratic Party, SPÖ) refused to appoint a coalition government which rallied the conservatives of the People's Party (ÖVP) and members of the Association of Independents (VdU), a far right party comprising, amongst others, former members of the Nazi Party. Adolf Schärf finally approved the coalition government rallying conservatives and social democrats.
Commander in Chief of the Armies, the Head of the Austrian State is elected for six years and his term in office is renewable once only. Any candidate running for president must be aged at least 35 and collate a minimum of 6000 voters' signatures and even gain the support of at least five members of the National Council. Any candidate winning more than half of the votes is elected in the first round. A second round is organized if none of the candidates achieves this result. In this case a new candidate can replace one of those who stood in the first round.
A referendum is organized if only one candidate runs for the presidency. This measure was established in 1982 to avoid a Head of State being elected without having undertaken a real electoral campaign.
It is obligatory to vote in four of the nine Länder: Tyrol, Carinthia, Styria and Vorarlberg.
3 people are officially running for the presidential office:
- Heinz Fischer, 61 years old is outgoing Head of State who succeeded Thomas Klestil on 25th April 2004 winning 52.41% of the vote (in comparison with 47.49% for his ÖVP challenger, Benita Ferrero-Waldner). The outgoing President is a former SPÖ member and former Deputy Leader of Parliament;
- Barbara Rosenkranz, 51 years old, candidate of the Liberal Party (FPÖ) and regional leader of this party in Lower Austria;
- Rudolf Gehring, 52 years old, leader of the Christians (CPÖ), a conservative party (not represented in Parliament) and who has made the anti-abortion theme the focus of his campaign.
The Electoral Campaign
An exceptional fact about this presidential election – the leading opposition party, the People's Party (ÖVP) is not putting a candidate forward – a first since 1945. Erwin Pröll, governor of Lower Austria since 1992 and holder of the longest term in office as governor of a Land since 1945 was believed to be a potential candidate before declaring that he was not going to stand for election as head of State. Erwin Pröll is the nephew of the present Vice-Chancellor and Chair of the ÖVP, Josef Pröll - a family link which made his candidature very difficult to imagine. The ÖVP also decided not support any of the other three candidates who were running.
Alexander van der Bellen the Greens leader indicated in January 2009 that he would not run if Heinz Fischer ran for another term in office. In February the Greens finally announced that they would not be putting any candidate forward. Their spokesperson Eva Glawischnig- Piesczek, stressed that the party preferred to focus on the regional elections in Burgenland, Styria and Vienna.
Finally the far right party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) had planned to support the candidature of Claudia Haider, widow of the former leader Jörg Haider, who died on 11th October 2008. The party had invited the Greens and the FPÖ to form a non-partisan committee to support their candidate. But this did not work out and the BZÖ gave up its bid.
The lack of opposition against outgoing Head of State Heinz Fischer has opened a window for a third political force in the country. On 28th February FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache confirmed that Barbara Rosenkranz would be running for that party in the presidential election. "We shall not let Heinz Fischer campaign alone," he declared.
Barbara Rosenkranz, mother of 10 children belongs to the extreme rightwing of the conservative FPÖ. Her husband Horst is the editor of the review Fakten which likes to denounce "the Turks, the Chechens, the Asians, the gypsies and the Negros" and even "the hackneyed clichés of the supposed crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and the horrors of the camps." She was the only Austrian MP to vote against the Lisbon Treaty. Her candidature is supported by Hans Dichland, a notorious eurosceptic and head of the newspaper Kronen Zeitung which has a daily readership of 3 million i.e. 43% of the Austrian population who are of an age to read a newspaper (the Kronen Zeitung is the most important daily in the world in terms of the population).
Criticism has been raised against Barbara Rosenkranz. The Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn indicated on 5th March last that he would not being voting for the FPÖ candidate. "A person who questions the law with regard to the ban on national socialism" (since 1947 this law has prohibited the propagation of the Nazi ideology such as supporting or founder a neo-Nazi organization or party – it is one of the strictest in Europe) and does not have a clear position with regard to the Holocaust is not in my opinion a possible option," he declared. In the face of these accusations Barbara Rosenkranz has said that "she has always defended and has never questioned the values of Austria and that she wanted to fight for the freedom of expression in Austria." She has said that her political commitment was the expression of her "love for her mother country and for the Republic of Austria, for its neutrality and its freedom." Finally she decided to declare under oath that she had never questioned the existence of the gas chambers during the Second World War, a gesture that was advised by the head of the Kronen Zeitung, Hans Dichland.
On 25th March last around 3000 people each carrying a candle rallied in the centre of Vienna on the appeal of an anti-Rosenkranz group set up on Facebook in protest against the candidature of Barbara Rosenkranz.
Without a candidate on the part of the ÖVP, she may however win the votes of the conservative voters who do not want to vote for Heinz Fischer.
Given that is little at stake in this election because of the significant lead held by outgoing President Heinz Fischer in the polls the Austrian Presidential election will mainly gauge the power to mobilize on the part of the SPÖ and the FPÖ. Heinz Fischer, whose popularity rating lies at around 75% of positive opinions, should not deviate from the rule whereby traditionally in Austria all of the Presidents of the Republic who have tried for a second term in office succeed in retaining their positions.
Source : Austrian Home Ministry