Austria – Alexander Van der Bellen wins presidential runoff with razor-thin margin

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 24 May 2016

On Sunday, 22 May, Austrian went to the polls for the second round of presidential elections which – for the first time in Austrian history – did not include the candidates of SPÖ and ÖVP. Alexander Van der Bellen (independent/Greens) narrowly beat his opponent, Norbert Hofer (FPÖ), with a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes (0.6%) in a neck-and-neck race that was only decided on Monday afternoon after all postal votes had been counted. While a victory of the far-right Hofer, widely feared by international and a majority of national commentators alike, has thus been averted, the election marks without doubt a pivotal moment in Austrian politics. It spells the end of the dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP, the manifestation of ever stronger political divisions between the far-right and the remainder of the political spectrum, and seems to fall within a larger trend in support for right-wing parties and candidates in European politics.

Results of the Austrian presidential elections - Van der Bellen + Hofer

Already the results of the first round had shaken up Austrian politics. First, neither candidate of the governing parties SPÖ and ÖVP – who have dominated the Austrian presidency and government since the end of WWII – made it into the run-off. Both only polled a combined 22.4% of votes – far below their worst combined result yet. Following the election debacle and repeated calls for consequences, Chancellor Faymann (SPÖ) eventually resigned, citing a lack of support in his party. There have not been any consequences yet in the the ÖVP, yet it is likely that the party will, too, try to reinvent itself at least partially before the 2018 parliamentary elections.

Analysts were unsure of whether Van der Bellen, a veteran Green politician (though formally independent), would be able to catch up to Hofer, who serves as one of the speakers of Austria’s federal parliament. Already shortly after the exit polls for the first round had been announced, parties categorically declined to make any kind of recommendations – only the third-placed candidate Irmgard Griss (independent) indirectly came out in support for Alexander Van der Bellen shortly before the second round, saying that she had given him her (postal) vote. The campaign of the two candidates was overshadowed by their widely panned performance during an experimental TV debate in which they went head to head without any TV presenter to moderate the discussion. Regardless, voters turned out in larger numbers to the polls on Saturday – turnout increased by 4% to 72.7% (the highest value since 1998).

During the election night (or afternoon, to be precise) tensions were running high after a first exit poll suggested a victory for Hofer, yet too narrow to exceed the margin of error. Subsequently, projections quickly suggested a stalemate between candidates and it became clear that the race would only be decided after counting the postal vote on Monday. Although Hofer had the majority of votes cast in ballot offices across the country (among these Van der Bellen only received a majority in Vienna and the state of Voralberg), Van der Bellen eventually won the election thanks to an overwhelming majority 61.7% among postal votes (with 746,110 they represented 16.6% of all votes). While some commentators suggested that parties might try to challenge such a narrow victory by either candidates, Hofer acknowledged his defeat on Monday afternoon.

Van der Bellen’s election introduces an unknown intro Austrian politics which – with regard to both chancellery and presidency – has hitherto been dominated by SPÖ and ÖVP. Although Van der Bellen formally ran as an independent, he is still formally a member of the Green party (which also supported his candidacy logistically and financially). While the Green party is part of the parliamentary opposition, it would be incorrect to speak of the advent of a period of cohabitation. Despite his general opposition to the dominance of the two mainstream parties voiced during the campaign, Van der Bellen’s relationship with the government is likely to be neutral and even if not unified at least supportive. Van der Bellen will have to show some moderate activism to please his electorate and while this could be markedly more than his predecessors (who largely refrained from interference in day-to-day politics) it will be far from the dramatic steps promised by his defeated contender Hofer (who signalled he would dismiss the government and dissolve parliament).

Irrespective of the fact that Hofer lost the runoff, he – and his party – will play a much more prominent role in Austrian politics from now on. Since January this year, opinion polls see the FPÖ at 32-34% which would make them the largest party in the next federal election (on overage, SPÖ and ÖVP only poll around 22% each). Hofer’s success also seems to fit in with a larger trend of gains by far-right parties across Europe. While these have partly been able to feed on anti-immigrant sentiments amidst the influx of refugees into (Western) Europe, in Austria the success of the FPÖ also seems attributable to an anti-establishment mood which is not sufficiently and/or successfully articulated by other political parties.

Austria – Will the April presidential elections bring an end to the SPÖ-ÖVP dominance of federal politics?

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 6 April 2016

Politics in Austria since reinstatement of the republic in 1945 dominated by the two mass parties, SPÖ (Social Democratic Party of Austria) and ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party). Presidential  elections have thereby been no exception. After Austria’s first post-WW II head of state, Karl Renner (SPÖ), had still been held indirectly in a joint sessions of the two chambers of parliament, Austrian voters have chosen their president by popular vote since 1951. On 24 April, Austrians are once again called to the polls to elected a new president after president Heinz Fischer (independent; previously SPÖ) served two consecutive and is not eligible for re-election. However, for the first time in 75 years, it appears possible that not a candidate of either of the big parties will win the race for the Hofburg, the seat of the Austrian presidency.

The dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP in previous elections

% of first round votes for SPÖ and ÖVP candidates 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

During the last 75 years, candidates nominated by SPÖ and ÖVP dominated the candidate field in presidential elections and in almost half of them other parties yielded to their dominance and fielded no candidates. Even when other candidates were in the running, SPÖ and ÖVP managed to capture an overwhelming majority of valid 1st round votes. Subsequently, all run-off elections were also decided between SPÖ and ÖVP candidates. Only on three occasions – on each of which the incumbent of the respective other party ran ran for re-election – have these parties not nominated their own candidate.

This dominance of SPÖ and ÖVP becomes even clearer when looking at the effective number of candidates (ENC) throughout the years – irrespective of whether Laakso’s and Taagepera’s or Golosov’s measure is used and how many actual candidates contest the election, the ENC stays close to or below 2. The indices also highlight the extreme change that the 2016 election might bring based on recent opinion polls – both exhibit scores that are more than twice as high as their previous average (Laakso & Taagepera: 5.341; Golosov: 4.658) and come close to approximating the actual number of candidates, signifying a relatively evenly matched field of competing candidates. The actual number of candidates in this election also ties the previous record of six candidates in 1951 and it is the first time that two independent candidates (i.e. not nominated or officially supported by any party) are competing for the presidency.

Candidates and competition in Austrian presidential elections, 1951-2016_presidential-power.com

A look the candidates in the 2016 elections

The above figures have already shown that this election is far from being dominated by the candidates of only two parties. Yet, recent opinion polls (see below) illustrate just how much this election differs from previous contests as the candidates of neither SPÖ nor ÖVP are even among the front-runners but trail behind in fourth and fifth place, respectively.

The field of candidates is headed by Alexander Van der Bellen, an economic professor, former member of parliament and leader of the Green Party. While he is officially running as an independent, the Green Party is financing his campaign. As Der Standard notes, his nominal independence means that he could avoid a lengthy nomination procedure (requiring only the party leadership’s support) and his campaign is not bound by the same complicated transparency regulations of the Austrian party law as party-nominees. In addition, it is very likely a way to make his candidacy more appealing to voters of other parties (Van der Bellen’s personal popularity has always exceeded that of his party). This interpretation is also supported by the fact that one of the aims of his campaign, which otherwise focusses on a number of traditionally green and left-of-centre postulates, is to “become the first president who does not come from the big party apparatusses [i.e. SPÖ/ÖVP], who serves independently” – thus mirroring the rhetoric of independent Slovak president Andrej Kiska in 2014. Should he win, Van der Bellen would only be the second Green president in the world after Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis.

The fact that Norbert Hofer, candidate of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), follows in second place is less surprising. The FPÖ (whose inclusion in the federal government by the ÖVP 2000-2003 led to calls for sanctions from other EU nations) has benefited greatly from the refugee crisis during which its xenophobic rhetoric and clear stance resonated with many Austrians and let the party rise in the polls. Hofer, a member and third deputy speaker of the Austrian National Council, has also integrated a number of other slogans used by right-wing populists across Europe into his campaign (e.g. criticism of the EU, more direct democracy). Given his steady performance in the polls, Hofer will quite likely make it into the second round unless Griss’ ratings rise any further.

candidates and polls in the Austrian presidential elections 2016_presidential-power.com

The performance of third-ranking candidate Irmgard Griss is not only notable because she is likely to achieve the best result of an independent candidate in Austrian presidential elections, but also because of her ability to fundraise (she has received the highest amount of all candidates so far). Griss is a lawyer and former president of the Austrian Supreme Court and originally entertained the idea of a candidacy as a joint candidate of SPÖ and ÖVP, yet as these failed to support her, she announced that she was running as an independent. Her campaign is in many ways a crossover between those of the two frontrunners as she stresses her independence from party politics (in many ways postulating a form of ‘anti-politics’) on the one hand and criticises the government for its handling of the refugee crisis. As a centre-right candidate she is likely to be supported by disappointed ÖVP-voters and get part of the conservative-leaning protest vote. It is difficult to establish whether she is a danger to Hofer, yet her polling results have recently improved.

Rudold Hundstorfer was presented as the SPÖ candidate in mid-January 2016. As a former trade union official and cabinet minister in the Faymann governments personifies the ‘old politics’ of the Austrian party-state, one of the reasons that he may be trailing behind in the polls. Compared to his rivals, Hundstorfer’s campaign is also relatively bland and lacks concrete political demands. While this and his campaign slogan “The uniting force” reflect the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian presidency according to established constitutional practice (yet in contrast to its formal powers), it appears to be relatively unpopular with voters.

Andreas Khol, a long-time chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group and speaker of the National Council, in many ways shares the ‘flaws’ of his SPÖ contender. His campaign focusses mainly on his experience as a politician and contacts with foreign heads of state. His 6 children and 15 grandchildren are listed as proof of his support for traditional family values (although it should be mentioned that he can be described as relatively progressive compared to others in his party). Apart from that, it also lacks the appeal of the three front-runners.

Last-placed candidate is Viennese construction mogul and socialite Richard Lugner (now best-known for paying celebrities to accompany him to the Vienna Opera Ball). Lugner already once ran for president in 1998, receiving 9.9% of the vote. However, he subsequently failed to build on his success and enter parliament with his movement “The Independents” one year later. After initially falling short of signatures to register his candidacy, Lugner managed to deliver the missing declarations of support within a three-day grace period granted by the Federal Election Agency. After Lugner’s 1998 campaign was still earnest, his current campaign appears to be far from serious. It is focussed on a campaign song performed by himself (watch it here) in which he praises his significantly younger wife’s physical assets (claiming that even Putin has her poster in his wardrobe) and declares to appoint FPÖ party chairman Hans-Christian Strache as Federal Chancellor to “tidy up” Austrian politics.

The 2016 election: Ending the two-party hegemony?

Based on current opinion polls, Van der Bellen and Hofer seem to be relatively set for entering a run-off. Griss, who has been rising in the polls, might however still interfere with this set-up. This constellation notwithstanding, it seems very unlikely that either SPÖ or ÖVP will see their candidates enter the run-off or win the presidential election. The SPÖ will likely support Van der Bellen in a run-off against either Hofer or Griss. The ÖVP on the other hand will likely only support the non-partisan Griss. While Hofer would surely look more kindly on the ÖVP than on its senior coalition partner SPÖ, the FPÖ remains a political pariah on the federal level and supporting their candidate might thus have negative consequences for ÖVP both on the national and international level. Hofer and Griss would most likely endorse each other’s candidacies, yet Griss may be more reluctant to do so if she aims to obtain any other political office. In accordance with his song, Lugner will likely throw his support behind Hofer, yet his endorsement is likely to remain with little influence in any case.

In any case, this presidential election will see an important break with the two-party hegemony of SPÖ and ÖVP which has long dominated Austrian politics. It also shows the immense political impact of the refugee crisis and the dissatisfaction of voters with the political class which was already visible in the 2013 general elections when the new parties “Team Stronach” (economically liberal and eurosceptic party founded by billionaire Frank Stronach) and NEOS (economically and socially liberal party which emerged from a number of citizens’ initiatives) entered the National Council. It remains to be seen which effect the results of the election will have on the established parties. A strong finish of FPÖ candidate Hofer (even in third place) will likely boost the party’s electoral prospects (the next federal elections are due 2018) while the Green Party will not necessarily profit from Van der Bellen’s performance due to its niche appeal. The results of SPÖ and ÖVP – who voters might now also punish for merely general dissatisfaction – on the other hand could be part of a general trend in which mass parties lose their appeal to voters (a prime example of this would be the German Social Democrats).

Czech Republic – President Zeman vs Prime Minister Sobotka once again

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 9 February 2016

Czech president Milos Zeman and his remarks about refugees (including those in his Christmas message) have made continuously made headlines over the last months, earning him the reputation of  being ‘Europe’s answer to Donald Trump‘. At the same time and relatively unnoticed by international media, the ongoing conflict between Zeman and Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (with whose coalition government Zeman is in cohabitation) has recently bubbled up once again. After Zeman’s activism was previously less than well-received by the public, he is now using the opportunities created by his recent rise in popularity and upcoming local elections to launch another effort to weaken the Prime Minister and his government.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka (l.) and President Milos Zeman

The refugee crisis continues to dominate not only European but also Czech politics, creating a divide within both the public and politics on how to deal with it. On the side stands president Zeman whose notorious anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric find resonance in a significant parts of the population (in a recent opinion poll ca. two thirds agreed with his stance) and has contributed to the rise of a number of anti-immigration groups. Anti-immigration protests and attacks on a refugee centre culminated in a new climax over the weekend.  Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka from the Social Democratic CSSD (which Zeman incidentally chaired 1992-2001 but left in 2007) finds himself on the other side of the conflict. Although his government – just like his Polish and Slovak counterparts – also rejects the suggested quota system (the Czech Republic currently has so far only offered to shelter 400 refugees) and Sobotka is wary of the effects public opinion, he has so far presented the voice of reason, condemning any violence and accusing Zeman of destabilising society.

The refugee issue is still gaining in momentum, yet have not yet translated in an increased leverage for Zeman or sufficient political pressure on the government to resign, not the least due to the fact that coalition partners (and even some opposition parties) have so far been relatively united in fending off Zeman’s attacks and criticising his remarks.  President and Prime Minister clashed on recalling the country’s ambassador to Norway as a reaction to the ongoing discussions with the Norwegian government about the decisions of its child welfare service ‘Barneverent’ (which has placed several children of Central East European parents into foster care, allegedly without sufficient justification or examination). Although the issue triggered a few demonstrations, it has not had much of an additional impact in Zeman’s favour (who already excluded the Norwegian ambassador from some events in the past).

It appears that Zeman is therefore attempting another strategy alongside of attacking the government on its policies (see also below). Specifically, CSSD insiders talk about the possibilityof a second ‘Lany coup’ (Lany is the president’s summer residence) – a renewed attempt to topple the Prime Minister with the help of Sobotka’s CSSD-internal opponents. A similar plan failed in autumn 2013 after the last parliamentary elections, but as Zeman is now apparently supported by Michal Hasek – first deputy chairman of the CSSD one of the regional governors that the party would like to see re-elected later this year – the situation has changed. Furthermore, Sobotka and his government currently face accusations of incompetence after hispersonal email account was hacked by a far-right group who have now started to publish the emails – primarily those relating to the government’s response to the refugee crisis.

It is crucial to note here that Zeman himself has no representation in parliament and thus lacks one of the crucial means for presidents to indirectly exert political influence. The ‘Party for Citzens’ Rights – Zemanites’ (SPOZ) which he founded in 2009 failed to enter parliament in 2013 and does not play an important political role (it has also since rid itself of ‘Zemanites’-suffix). As a former member and chairman of the CSSD, he maintains good contacts to some parts of the party and is still admired by some but there are no ‘natural allies’ for him among the governing or opposition parties. His strategy therefore appears to weaken the CSSD to the point that he is granted some degree of influence (which would likely include the removal of Sobotka to whom Zeman still attributes blame for not becoming president in the indirect elections in 2003). The fact that regional assembly and Senate elections will be held in October hereby plays out in Zeman’s favour. Should he continue to gain popularity at the expense of the government, Sobotka and the CSSD will have to find new ways of dealing with the president – which may include some compromises with Zeman – or risk an even greater electoral defeat in the ‘mid-term’ elections.

Ukraine – Presidency in turbulences

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 4 March 2014

The recent weeks have seen overwhelmingly fast-paced developments in Ukraine. After months of protests, the conflict between government and protesters escalated and resulted in the deaths of at least 88 people. Government and opposition agreed on the return to the 2004 constitution which curtailed presidential power, yet parliament later moved to oust the president and installed the speaker of parliament as acting head of state. This post will give a brief overview of the developments and explain what changes were introduced with regard to the presidency.

Return to the 2004 constitution

Following the Orange Revolution, parties agreed to amend the Ukrainian constitution of 1996 (before then the country had operated under an amended version of their Soviet constitution). For the most part, these amendment concerned the role of the president. After having been a prime example of a president-parliamentary system under which the prime minister and government was subordinate to the presidency, the 2004 amendments transformed Ukraine’s political system to a Premier-presidential system. In 2010, president Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions reverted these changes by having the Constitutional Court – now staffed with the president’s allies – declare the changes unconstitutional.

The agreement between president and opposition of 21 February included to once again return to the the 2004 version which was confirmed by parliament on the same day. As can be seen in the table above, the differences largely concern presidential power in government formation and dismissal as well as the president’s power to annul government acts. However, the president retains his powerful presidential veto. Given that an absolute 2/3 majority is needed to override a veto but only a relative majority to adopt a version that includes the president’s amendment, the presidency can still dominate the legislative process without much effort.

Ousting of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency

One day after the signing of the aforementioned agreement, parliament surprisingly decided to oust president Yanukovych from office even though it appeared that he would agree to step down by the end of the year and clear the way for early presidential elections. While many media outlets reported that Yanukovych had been impeached, this is not quite correct as parliament failed to follow the procedures laid down in Art. 111 of the Constitution (unaffected by the 2004 amendments). These require that an absolute majority of deputies establishes a special investigatory commission. Following the investigation a 2/3-majority of all deputies must then bring the case to the Constitutional Court or the Supreme Court (depending on what the president is accused of). Only if the respective court confirms the constitutionality of the procedure and the allegations can parliament impeach the president with a 3/4-majority of its members.

Results of the vote to oust Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency

While the Ukrainian parliament passed its decision to remove Yanukovych from office with 73% of its members (and with unsuprising absences on the part of Viktor Yanukovych’s ‘party of the Regions’), the vote was thus not an impeachment of the president in the constitutional-legal sense. Admittedly, the actual relevance of this violation is decreasing by the minute – even though Russia uses it as part of their argumentation not to accept the new regime – and will likely be dismissed as a ‘procedural error’ once a new president is elected.

Speaker Oleksander Turchynov as acting president & elections on 25 May

On the same day, parliament also elected the former deputy Prime Minister Oleksander Turchynov as its new speaker. Pursuant to Art 112 of the constitution Turchynov then took over the role of temporary head of state. As acting president Turchynov is forbidden to exercise a number of powers, in particular he cannot:

– convey public addresses to either the Ukrainian people or parliament
– dissolve parliament or set a date for early parliamentary elections
– propose new ministers of foreign affairs and defence, or make appointments to the constitutional court or National Bank
– grant pardons

Parliament also scheduled new presidential elections for 25 May (given the limited powers of an acting president to dissolve parliament this is the necessary precursor to early parliamentary elections). Potential candidates include former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was released from jail on the same day as the ousting of president Yanukovych, yet whose candidacy is seen with much scepticism among Ukrainians. UDAR-chairman Vitali Klitschko (read more about his presidential ambitions here) might have better chances. His decision to refrain from being part of the new government led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk was widely interpreted as a move to keep clear of any blame the government might attract over the necessary but painful economic reforms and thus start into the presidential race as a ‘fresh’ candidate.

[N.B.: The post previously stated that a 2/3 majority was needed for the final impeachment vote whereby in fact 3/4 are needed. Thanks to Justin Grove for pointing this out.]