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
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
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.
Data as of December 1993