The Austrian presidential elections last year was a sign of tremendous change in the country’s party system. Both of the hitherto dominant parties – Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) – failed to have their candidate elected (let alone enter the run-off), while support for the far-right FPÖ and its candidate, deputy speaker Norbert Hofer, soared. Although veteran Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen eventually won the election, the threat of the FPÖ becoming the largest party in the next elections has been looming over Austrian politics ever since. After Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) resigned in the aftermath of the presidential election debacle and was replaced by his co-partisan Christian Kern, relations between coalition partners SPÖ and ÖVP were tense. Three weeks ago, the coalition effectively collapsed with the resignation of vice-Chancellor Mitterlehner (ÖVP) and the announcement of his successor, foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, to call snap elections for October 2017. The outcome is unpredictable as of yet, but will provide a difficult parliamentary arithmetic in any case and may transform the way in which Austria’s semi-presidentialism functions.
To date, presidents have largely practised a “Rollenverzicht” (i.e. relinquishing of an active role in day-to-day politics) and made generally sparing use of their powers, particularly in the appointment and dismissal of Chancellors where they followed the will of parties. Nevertheless, the Austrian president belongs to the most powerful presidents in European democracies (more powerful in fact than the president of France; see also Robert Elgie’s interview here) and can theoretically dismiss governments at will. The possibility that Norbert Hofer, if victorious, would appoint FPÖ party leader Strache as Chancellor was discussed as a distinct possibility. While the FPÖ currently holds 38 of 183 seats (20.8%) in the National Council and is thus only the third-largest party after SPÖ and ÖVP, it now has a realistic chance of becoming the largest party and claiming the office of Chancellor (see figure above).
An electoral victory for the FPÖ would not only put the established parties, but also president Van der Bellen in a difficult position – domestically and internationally. Van der Bellen has not only repeatedly declared that FPÖ leader Strache would be an unsuitable choice for Chancellor but also that he would refuse to appoint a FPÖ-led government even won the most seats in the next election . Furthermore, when the FPÖ participated in Austria’s federal government (albeit as junior partner in a coalition led by the ÖVP) the last time (1999 to 2002), other EU member states reacted with diplomatic “sanctions” due to the FPÖ’s openly xenophobic and revisionist positions (many of which remain part of the party – albeit less openly – to this day).
SPÖ and ÖVP have been very pragmatic in preparing for a potential coalition with the FPÖ. Starting with the failure to openly back Van der Bellen’s candidacy against Hofer in the run-off of the presidential election, neither party has excluded a coalition with the FPÖ outright. Thus, president Van der Bellen will likely assume a crucial role after the elections. Interestingly, the president has so far refused to comment on the snap elections – except for asking parties to remain civil and stating that he would expect them to formulate clear positions regarding the EU, education, labour market and human rights. Given the Austrian Chancellor once appointed does not require a vote of confidence or investiture, Van der Bellen would have the option to appoint a minority government. In that case, he may effectively become a ‘third coalition partner’ and much more strongly and openly involved in day-to-day politics that any Austrian president before. Yet even Van der Bellen chose to appoint a government with participation of the FPÖ, he could likely still refuse to nominate its candidate for Chancellor over that of a (junior) coalition partner . Irrespective of the scope of the FPÖ’s participation in government, Van der Bellen would face both domestic and international pressure to provide a balance to the FPÖ.
Come October Van der Bellen will most likely not be able to rely voters to produce an ‘uncomplicated’ parliamentary arithmetic as could his predecessors. Rather the election with force him – or provide an opportunity for him (depending on one’s perspective) – to assume a more active role in Austrian politics. During his election campaign, Van der Bellen had already hinted at a slightly more activist understanding of his role. Assuming a strong FPÖ result (or victory), the question is now whether Van der Bellen will want to use the vast powers of the presidency and to what extent this will lead to a transformation of Austria’s semi-presidentialism.
 Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves made a similar statement with regard to Centre Party leader Edgar Savisaar in 2010 but remained inconsequential as the party failed to win the elections.
 An international precedent for this would be Polish president Lech Walesa’s nomination of PSL leader Waldemar Pawlak as prime minister of a SLD-PSL coalition in 1993, even though the SLD had won more seats.
This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 31 May 2017.