Austrian president Thomas Klestil has died 

The Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil (71) died last night, 36 hours before the end of his term. Mr Klestil succumbed to multiple organ failure while being in intensive care after a cardiac arrest early Monday. [German-language reporting in dailies Standard, Presse, Salzburger Nachrichten]

Many Austrians will remember him mainly for three aspects of his twelve year term in office: Mr Klestil campaigned and was elected on the promise that he would be a 'strong' president who would interfere more actively with the government of the country, which is traditionally dominated by the chancellor. After EU accession in 1995, this almost led to a constitutional impasse over the question of who would represent Austria in EU meetings of the heads-of-state. In this conflict, President Klestil had to step back eventually in favour of Chancellor Franz Vranitzky and accept the traditional division of roles. This will have a lasting effect on the political system, since the constitution leaves some room for different interpretations in this respect. Since Klestil's failed attempt to change the status quo, the 'weak' role of the federal presidency is now finally established.

Secondly, Mr Klestil strongly opposed the formation of an ÖVP-FPÖ government in early 2000. Again, he eventually had to accept the participation of the internationally shunned right-wing FPÖ in government, but he expressed his indignation by making a famously stern face during the swearing-in ceremony of the government.

Due to this and other disagreements, Mr Klestil became more and more estranged to the conservative ÖVP which had originally nominated him, as well as to ÖVP-chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. During his last years in office, marked also by Mr Klestil's worsening health, the presidency developed into a political voice that represented the old Austrian politics of consensus against the confrontational approach of the right-wing government. Also in this conflict, Mr Klestil picked a position that had no chance of winning.

The nation, an entity that seems to have briefly returned to existence over the 40 hours of Mr Klestil's heavily reported fight for his life, has witnessed the death of its top representative, despite all efforts of the top medical experts of the country. Yesterday evening the main figures of the political system attended a Roman catholic service at the cathedral, where they prayed for the president.

Heinz Fischer, Mr Klestil's elected successor, will be sworn in tomorrow, in what will be a very muted ceremony. Until then, the collective of the three presidents of parliament exercises the powers of the Federal Presidency.

There should be no cynicism over the amount of attention that Mr Klestil's struggle and his death have received. This is so not only because he was a human being like all of us and deserves our respect, but also because in such moments we become aware of just how fragile the human condition, our destiny, is. None of our attempts to erect unassailable systems of social order and power can afflict this bitter truth.


Brought to the point. A good and informative summary. - MR
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