Austria’s presidency

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.

27 thoughts on “Austria’s presidency

  1. Austria has operated de facto as a parliamentary system since 1945. The informal deal that brought this about and kept it that way was, it seems to me, only made possible through enforcement by the two main parties (and their presidential candidates). With someone not from one of those parties in the president’s office, that deal falls apart. Even if van der Bellen is elected, I think the next few years will come to remind everyone that Austria is actually semi-presidential.


    • I agree with JD. Even if Hofer wins and does not dissolve the legislature, his appointment powers could mean that even if the current SPO-OVP coalition wins a majority in 2018, he could insist on appointing a FPO chancellor, perhaps in coalition with the OVP (such an alliance not being an unprecedented situation by any means). While the President can be removed in a technically partisan process, this requires a two-thirds majority in the National Council and a majority of both houses in joint session, which is quite a difficult threshold.

      Matthew, I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Samuels and Shugart (the State Library of Victoria has an unfortunate paucity of your work), but I’d be cautious of viewing this as an event that will increase the FPO’s support. I feel that a party of protest like the FPO will actually be worse off with more power and responsibility, as happened when they entered government in 1999. However, perhaps the Presidency will give them a further platform from which way to protest.


      • If Hofer had won and called an election soon (which I will assume, for sake of discussion that he’d have been constitutionally able to do), it is really hard to imagine any outcome other than a large surge (not likely a majority) for his party. After a period of time, what Henry says–that the protest party would do worse upon being given responsibility–likely would kick in.

        Fortunately, we are not going to see Austria run this very interesting experiment.

        I assume Van der Bellen is less likely to dissolve parliament or dismiss the government than Hofer would have been, because his majority is mostly a negative one. However, I certainly do not claim to understand Austrian voting dynamics. After this election, I wonder if anyone can so claim.


      • During the campaign, Van der Bellen himself has said he would refuse to swear in an FPOe chancellor. A test to Austria’s president’s power may still be possible in the near future.


  2. I think one can look to Poland 2015 for an example of presidential election results influencing a later parliamentary election. The Law and Justice party surged from lagging behind the Civil Platform in polls to winning a majority 5 months later.


    • John, I suspect the dramatic change in Polish polls following the 2015 presidential election owes more to the dramatic rise of Pawel Kukiz than the actual win by Law and Justice, which only rose slightly after the presidential election (it’s more that Civic Platform collapsed). But you are right, in that the results of the presidential election certainly influenced the legislative elections.


  3. Interesting that the the candidate that was in 2nd place won the election in the 2nd round. Is this common in 2 round Presidential elections a candidate in 2nd place winning the elections? Makes me wonder what the election result would had been if there was an Australia optional preferential vote system. I am wondering how the French Presidential election will turn out, and it will mostly have the same and similar result. Can an extreme party win an absolute majority in the 2nd round of a Presidential election? We know it is possible under the first round and perhaps a FPTP presidential election. Do 2 round electoral systems and/or preferential voting promote the election of moderate politicians?


    • “Is this common in 2 round Presidential elections a candidate in 2nd place winning the elections?”

      At least in Portugal, the only case where was a 2nd round (1986), the winner was the 2nd in the first round (and with a big distance from the 1st – 46% versus 24%)


    • Two round system patently do not promote moderate candidates as recent experience in Austria has shown.

      It is usually said that preferential voting promotes moderate candidates but I am beginning to suspect (this is intuition and nothing more) that that is true only for optional preferential voting and not for exhaustive preferential voting.

      I also suspect the duopolistic effect of preferential voting (if it exists) is limited to exhaustive preferential voting. We can test this hypothesis over the next few years by comparing Queensland results before and after the recent abolition of OPV in that state. And perhaps Canada will give us a further test bed.

      Someone mathematically competent may care to compare the effective number of parties in OPV and non-OPV preferential elections.


      • You can’t just extrapolate from one case. If you look at all Austrian presidential systems until now, you see a continual pattern of the candidates of both main parties (where both had candidates) going on to the second round. This is the first time that either party did not get its candidate to the second round. Austria’s party system is under considerable stress at the moment, making co-ordination more difficult and yielding a stronger protest vote, so an unusual result is not that surprising. I would also point out that the Freedom Party specifically fielded a more moderate member of their party (presidentialisation at work) – the party’s leader, Strache, probably would have had a much lower chance of winning.

        But more in general, yes, co-ordination is harder in TRS than it is under AV. Comparing the three single-winner systems, FPTP gives a strong co-ordination and strategic voting incentive (I think Bagehot called this phenomenon the ‘principle of moderation’), under AV there is relatively little need for either co-ordination or strategic voting. TRS (majority) should give a certain incentive for co-ordination (as well as strategic voting), but it’s harder as it may be less obvious who is better placed to win, and so potentially co-operating parties may prefer their chances of getting to the second round; when it comes to presidential elections, Samuels and Shugart also find that there is an incentive against co-operation as smaller parties that do not put forward a presidential candidate tend to suffer at legislative elections. So it does make sense that it should be more difficult for moderates to co-ordinate. However, I would argue that when the party system is under pressure, any system should more often result in extreme outcomes, and particularly FPTP has some good examples.

        In Austria, if the two main parties had realised early on that they stood no chance, they could have chosen a common moderate candidate or something of that kind, and they might have got a moderate in the second round (though in the present situation this candidate could have got too strongly identified with the incumbent government) – under AV, of course, you don’t have to worry about that as much, at least if you can get your voters to rank other moderate candidates second and third. Besides this problem, however, I think that you would probably find that of the two candidates to reach the second round, the more moderate one is generally chosen, at least when there is a considerable difference (France 2002 being an obvious example). But, indeed, two relatively extreme candidates can reach the second stage. I don’t know how common this outcome is overall, but I can certainly think of a few, possibly including this one.

        As to bipartism… I do recall that one of Duverger’s less-well known (or at least less discussed) arguments is that TRS leads to multi-party systems. That is not what has been happening during the 5th Republic, but perhaps that does not count, as it is two-round plurality, not majority. It does seem to be in line with what I recall of the French 3rd Republic and of some other European countries before they switched to PR (eg: Germany, Netherlands). Perhaps the co-ordination problem is the cause here as well?


  4. The Jenkins Commission warned of IRV (AV): “its effects (on its own without any corrective mechanism) are disturbingly unpredictable.” So is the result of any kind of runoff. Canada had an example of the unpredictable results of an instant run-off, British Columbia in 1952 when the Liberal-Conservative coalition, while falling apart, introduced IRV so that its supporters could vote for each other against the socialist CCF; and the result was an unexpected victory for the leaderless BC Social Credit Party (its nominal interim leader was a federal MP from Alberta), which seems to have picked up a lot of “none-of-the-above” second preferences. In Austria, the candidates of the two largest parties got 11% each in the first round, while a centrist got 19%, the Green got 21%, and a far-right candidate got 35%, leaving an unlikely runoff. A parliamentary election with such votes might have led the centrist to power, rather than either of the extremes. Conclusion: two round systems do not lead to any predictable pattern of outcome.


    • > The Jenkins Commission warned of IRV (AV): “its effects (on its own without any corrective mechanism) are disturbingly unpredictable.” So is the result of any kind of runoff.”

      Out of curiosity, what do MMP supporters advocate for single-office vacancies? I’m assuming Approval, but the MMP-Onlyites have surprised me before. (Coming at this from an Australian perspective I am still getting used to the fact that there exist PR supporters who don’t like STV-AV
      I get the argument that STV/ runoff doesn’t particularly well suit Canada’s party system. On the other hand, very few winner-take-all systems will suit a polity where there are three separate major parties, any two of whom could place first or second, and who don’t cooperate electorally with each other via election pacts. I am also a bit skeptical about arguments that “The Democratic New Liberals will win landslide after landslide under AV, because they’ll be everybody’s second preference” which assume that every successive election will be like the first one, and that the attraction of a centre and/or protest party will continue indefinitely even after it has held Cabinet positions (see: Clegg, Nicholas, post-2010 career of), and ignore the possibility that the centre party will either split between left and right factions, or if it stays unified will end up gravitating to the left (see: Democrats, The Australian) or right (see: Perot, H Ross) side of the political spectrum.


      • Canadian Liberals tend to assume, with significant evidence, that AV will favour them. Many of them are properly shy about promoting a self-serving reform which only changes one winner-take-all system to another they expect will help them. I like to point out that, as shown in 1952 in BC and elsewhere, it can be disturbingly unpredictable, another reason to be shy of it.

        As for by-elections in an MMP model, the Law Commission of Canada recommended that single-seat by-elections by held as they do in Scotland and New Zealand. I assume they would still use FPTP,. The Law Commission did not discuss any other alternative.


  5. I forgot to mention the third-place candidate in the original posting. I just added it: an independent candidate who had 18.9%. (Thanks, WIlf, for the prompt.)

    I do not know anything about the candidate, Irmgard Griss, but Wikipedia said she initially presented her candidacy to the Freedom Party. So it is not clear to me that she is a “centrist”, or wanted to be seen as such.


    • I think Irmgard Griss also offered her candidacy to NEOS, as well, who seem to have endorsed her in a vague sense (see this article for those of you with Google Translate). She certainly got a substantial share of her votes from NEOS (see this poll ), and the fact that her support seems to come from a wide variety of parties does suggest that she is a centrist, and might have performed better in the runoff.


  6. As JD put it, the “Freedom Party specifically fielded a more moderate member of their party (presidentialisation at work)”. Yes, exactly, and we see presidentialization at work also in the winner and former Green leader presenting, at least nominally, as an independent rather than being formally nominated by the party.

    (presidentialisation/presidentialization; it’s all the same!)


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  8. We do not really know about optional vs exhaustive preferential voting systems, as so very few countries use such electoral systems. What I like about such systems compared to X marks the spot voting and by using numbers to rank my candidates is that candidates have a different incentive to try to win 2nd preferences rather than trying to divide and rule. I think I would prefer optional preferential voting, I should be able to rank just 1 candidate to 3, to number rank all the candidate till they exhaust even if this means that there are lot of exhaustive votes as some voters would rather have there vote exhaust rather than let it transfer to another candidate they do not know about or despise.

    This election was a close call, and perhaps a protest party like the FPO can continue to keep protesting and changing the political conversation. Once they have the ability to join the government and have some sort of responsibility, what will they do with that power? Do extreme once they win office, is democracy eroded to the point that it becomes an authoritarian dominant party system? If voters don’t like what they do and implement, they can throw them out at the next election.


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