Today Austrians voted in the runoff for their presidency. Latest reports suggest it is going to be a very close result. The candidates are Norbert Hofer from the populist/nationalist (“far right”) Freedom Party and Alexander Van der Bellen, of the Green Party although running as an independent.
The notion of a second round with a nationalist and a green as the two candidates is remarkable. I am sure there is no other runoff pairing like it in the annals of presidential elections.
That the establishment parties are in trouble is not news. In 2013 the Social Democrat and center-right People’s Party barely combined for half the votes and formed a not-so-grand coalition. In the first round of this year’s presidential election, on 24 April, their candidates could not even combine for a quarter of the votes! In fact, the Social Democrat got 11.3% and the People’s Party candidate managed 11.1%. Hofer led with 35.1%, and Van der Bellen trailed well behind at 21.3%–still nearly doubling what either of the establishment parties could manage. (An independent candidate finished third, with 18.9%.)
The BBC item (first link) says that Austria’s presidency “is a largely ceremonial post”. An earlier version followed up that statement by noting that the president can dismiss the government, and that Hofer has promised to do so if elected. One might question whether a president who can, on his or her political initiative, dismiss a government that has the confidence of parties controlling a majority of parliamentary seats, is “ceremonial”; in any case, the current version of the BBC story adds instead that:
a victory for Mr Hofer could be the springboard for Freedom Party success in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2018.
Yes indeed. Even weak presidencies, when elected, can have this effect (Samuels and Shugart, 2010). The first round already led to a leadership crisis within the coalition, as the Social Democratic leader and premier (Chancellor), Werner Faymann, resigned.
The Austrian presidency actually has quite significant constitutional powers. In fact, it would be a “president parliamentary” system, according to formal powers. This is the hybrid in which the popularly elected president does indeed have powers to dismiss a government. Presidents have not actually deployed these powers in the past, owing to the “establishment” consensus that the system should operate in a fundamentally parliamentary manner. However, a president from outside this consensus could certainly be expected to attempt to deploy the powers.
And, oh by the way, among the powers of initiative that the Austrian presidency has is the right to dissolve parliament. So that election “scheduled for 2018” may be coming a bit sooner.