The Federal President

The Federal President

A 1929 amendment to the 1920 constitution introduced the concept of a popularly elected president. Because of the suspension of the constitution in 1934, however, the first popular election of a president did not take place until 1951. The president serves a six-year term and is limited to two consecutive terms. Candidates must be at least thirty-five years of age and eligible to vote in Nationalrat elections.

Political parties nominate presidential candidates, but it is customary, given the limited powers of the position, for the president to serve in a nonpartisan manner. To win an election, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the votes. If no candidate succeeds on the first ballot, a runoff election is held between the two candidates receiving the highest number of votes. The president serves as head of state. Presidential duties include convoking, adjourning, and, in rare cases, dissolving the Nationalrat. The president signs treaties, verifies that legal procedures for legislation have been carried out, and grants reprieves and pardons. Although he cannot veto legislation, the president is empowered to reject a cabinet proposal or delay enactment of a bill. Unless the constitution states otherwise, official acts of the president require the countersignature of the chancellor or the relevant minister.

The president plays an important, though largely formal, role in the political process of forming and dissolving governments. In the aftermath of a parliamentary election, the president invites the leader of the strongest party in the Nationalrat to form a government. This duty reflects the fact that both the government and parliament are responsible to the president in the sense that he can dismiss individual members of the government, including the chancellor, as well as dissolve the Nationalrat. The president, on the recommendation of the chancellor, also appoints individuals to cabinet positions and other important government positions, including that of vice chancellor. The president also can dismiss individual cabinet officials, but only on the recommendation of the chancellor. During the Second Republic (that is, since 1945), the president has dissolved the Nationalrat only twice, in 1971 and 1986, in both cases because the incumbent chancellor and his party wished to have a new election.

The president has emergency authority that gives him significant powers. Should an emergency arise when the Nationalrat is not in session, the cabinet can request that the president act on the basis of "provisional law-amending ordinances," as provided for in the constitution. Such ordinances require the countersignature of the cabinet. Emergency decrees must be sent to the Nationalrat. If it is not in session, the president must convoke a special session. The Nationalrat has four weeks either to enact a law to replace the decree or to void the decree.

Two procedures are outlined in the constitution for pressing charges against the president: one entails a referendum; the other entails a vote by a joint session of parliament, the Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly). To set a referendum in motion, one-half of the Nationalrat deputies must be present and vote by a two-thirds majority to ask the chancellor to convoke the Bundesversammlung, which then must vote by a simple majority for a referendum. The referendum is carried if a simple majority of voters vote in favor of it. If the referendum is defeated, then the president is regarded as reelected, the Nationalrat is dissolved, and new elections are scheduled. Under no circumstances, however, shall a president serve more than twelve years in office.

The second procedure for bringing charges against the president results from his being responsible to the Bundesversammlung, which is authorized to vote on his actions. Either house of parliament can ask the chancellor to convoke the Bundesversammlung for such a purpose. One-half of the members of each house must be present, and the Bundesversammlung must cast a two-thirds vote to press charges against the president.

If the president dies or if the office is vacated for any other reason, a new election is held. In the interim, the chancellor carries out necessary presidential duties.

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