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Joachim Gauck; Norbert Hofer

Interview with Norbert Hofer on presidential role: ‘Balancing and non-partisan’

Norbert Hofer was a candidate in Austria for the office of Federal President in 2016. In the German newsmagazine ZUERST! he explains why he considers a direct election of the President the way forward.

Published: February 20, 2017, 12:47 pm

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    Sir, the next German President will be elected in February in the Reichstag building in Berlin. In contrast to Austria, in the Federal Republic of Germany, the people do not elect the president, but the so-called Federal Assembly. In Germany, the AfD, in particular, reopened the issue of directly electing the Federal President. What are your experiences in Austria?

    Hofer: The Federal President in Austria enjoys high regard among the people, not least because he is directly elected by the population and thus the degree of recognition is enormously high. His word weighs heavily and he is an essential balance in the power structure between parliament and government.

    The established political parties in Berlin strongly reject direct elections. It is alleged that this would protect the highest office from “populists”. What do you think?

    Hofer: I only recently explained in an interview with an American TV station that the FPÖ is doing so well in the polls because their approaches to the solution are popular. Just one example: about a year ago, we demanded a Burka ban in public spaces, which was dismissed as “populist”. These days, the government parties have agreed on such a ban against the fully veiled and suddenly it is no longer “populist”.

    In Austria, the Federal President is directly elected – you were a candidate for the FPÖ and have just lost against Alexander van der Bellen in the run-up. The country is divided, say the critics of a direct election in the Federal Republic of Germany. Is that so?

    Hofer: I do not believe that our country is divided. If two personalities are from completely different political camps, there is a public discussion and that is also good. The fact that two candidates represent the same views can only be found in totalitarian regimes, such as in North Korea or the former GDR. In any case, the long election campaign in Austria did not lead to a political disinclination or a decline in electoral participation. In this respect, he was of great use to democracy. What clearly emerged in the election campaign is the fact that a wide front – consisting of the Greens, SPÖ, large parts of the ÖVP, NEOS, parliamentarians, Haselsteiner – appeared against me.

    Is an alleged “division of society” at all an argument against a direct election?

    Hofer: People are right in a democracy. Therefore, no one needs to fear a direct democratic decision of the population.

    Another argument against the direct election of the Federal President in the Federal Republic of Germany is that the Office, which is merely representative as in Austria, would thus be charged with more importance and more political influence. But this does not correspond to the function of the Federal President, the critics say …

    Hofer: The Federal President can live out his political weight far better if he can build on the vote of the voters. Otherwise, he is hanging onto the government’s coat-tails. I can not speak here for the Federal Republic of Germany. If the Federal President represents the interests of the entire population, I think that the current regulation of direct elections as in Austria is the proper way.

    In the Federal Republic of Germany, the office of the Federal President is usually “negotiated” in the back room between the parties. Is the highest political office in the state not damaged thereby?

    Hofer: I think the Austrian regulation of direct elections is reasonable. For this reason, I am also a supporter of the expansion of direct democracies on the model of Switzerland. The Austrian Federal President, as a directly elected representative, has the opportunity to act in the best possible interests of the population. Regarding the regulation in the Federal Republic of Germany, I see the danger of too close a proximity to parties, which could lead to the fact that the President of the Federal Republic is not sufficiently independent to warn against a wrong turn.

    What do you think: Why are the government and the opposition parties in Berlin so mistrustful of their own people?

    Hofer: I believe it is not a question of distrust, but of the fact that some governmental individuals are obviously very far from the people. That is precisely why I am such a avid advocate of direct democracy. No politician is immune from going in the wrong direction, but the population can intervene as a corrective.

    Joachim Gauck has already polarized as Federal President: he advocated mass immigration and was more sympathetic towards migrants in eyes of many citizens than towards Germans. He was never impartial, but – especially in the fight against the AfD – very partisan and present in everyday political life. Has he misunderstood his office in your eyes?

    Hofer: I cannot evaluate the leadership style of Joachim Gauck. In any case, I would like the Austrian Federal President to remain equidistant to all political parties, and to be primarily committed to the Austrian population.

    How do you think the “perfect federal president” should act?

    Hofer: In any case, the Federal President should have a balancing and non-partisan view, and he should look to the entire state of the nation.

    Sir, thank you for the interview.

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