Alexander Van der Bellen, who beat the far-right candidate in a presidential election thriller last year, was sworn in today (26 January) just as speculation raged about the future of the government.
Van der Bellen, 73, narrowly won a run-off against Norbert Hofer from the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in May but the anti-immigration party got the result annulled due to procedural irregularities.
A re-run set for October had to be postponed because of faulty glue on postal votes and after an ugly and divisive campaign Van der Bellen finally won the presidency on 4 December.
“I promise to follow faithfully the constitution and all laws of the republic and to fulfil my role to the best of my knowledge and conscience,” Van der Bellen said in a ceremony in parliament.
Hofer, 45, who like similar politicians in Europe stoked concerns about immigration and security, also used to great effect across the Atlantic by Donald Trump, would have been the first far-right president in the European Union.
The victory of the professorial Van der Bellen, who was backed by the ecologist Greens but ran as an independent, was greeted with relief by centrist parties in Austria and around Europe.
In an inaugural speech to parliament after he was sworn in to the largely ceremonial post, Van der Bellen said he would work for all Austrians but rejected core tenets of the populist wave that has swept Britain and other Western democracies.
“I see the biggest danger as letting ourselves be ensnared by easy answers, and thereby tipping into nationalism… That cannot be in Austria’s interest as a small country,” he said.
Austria’s president is traditionally a father-of-the-nation figure who only occasionally intervenes in public. But he also exerts influence on the government and political parties behind the scenes. The post had been vacant for six months because a re-run of the vote was ordered over irregularities in the count.
Van der Bellen’s arrival could help ease tensions between Austria’s two centrist coalition parties, which are seeking to agree on a list of new priorities that would keep their alliance alive and counter perceptions their government is ineffective.
But the “grand coalition” of Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern, comprising his centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP), remains under severe pressure.
Speculation has been heightened that the coalition may throw in the towel and call early elections, as the FPÖ has been topping national opinion polls and amid the public squabbling this week within the coalition that is due to rule until late 2018.