The Austrian presidential election is better news than you think

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Image: A statue of Hercules slaying the Hydra decorates the Hofburg Palace, the location of the Austrian Federal President’s official residence and offices

Today there’s been a welcome bit of good news on the electoral front for the left, with a victory over the far right in the Austrian presidential election. Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent candidate formerly of the Green Party, finally defeated Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer by an increased majority compared to the nullified first results from the election’s second round. This is even better news than you’d think from reading a lot of the press about it.

Quite a few articles (such as this one) are claiming that the office of president is largely ceremonial and thus the far right’s defeat is primarily of symbolic importance. The first part of that is mostly true, but I think the second part is false. In addition to the ceremonial functions, the Austrian president’s real powers with respect to appointing and dismissing governments and dissolving parliament are similar to those of the governor general. Also like the governor general, the president’s use of these powers is largely regulated by convention alone. But unlike the governor general, the Austrian president may openly profess allegiance to one political party and is in a position to claim an independent democratic mandate to use the powers of the presidency for political ends even where this would involve a breach of convention. In fact, following the first round of voting, Hofer made a pledge to use the office to fire or disrupt the work of the governing coalition a plank of his election platform. 

Given the context of a slow-motion political realignment in Austria which has seen the steady deterioration of the formerly dominant centre-left/centre-right partnership from grand coalition to narrow majority, and with parliamentary elections on the horizon, a far right president would have had ample incentive and opportunity to use his powers for the benefit of his own party. Thankfully, this threat has been averted for the time being.

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