A member of the noble Russian Van der Bellen family, he was born in Austria to aristocratic Russian and Estonian parents who were refugees from Stalinism, and became a naturalised Austrian citizen together with his parents in 1958. He was a professor of economics at the University of Vienna before he entered national politics. He served as a member of the Austrian National Council representing the Austrian Green Party from 1994 to 2012 and was both leader of the parliamentary faction and leader of his party from 1997 to 2008. He ran as a nominally independent candidate supported by the Green Party in the 2016 presidential election, and finished second out of six in the first round before winning the second round against Norbert Hofer, a member of the Freedom Party of Austria. On 1 July, before he was due to be sworn into office, the results of the second round of voting were annulled by the Constitutional Court of Austria due to absentee votes being improperly counted too early, requiring the election to be re-held. On 4 December 2016, he won the ensuing election, taking approximately 54% of the vote.
Van der Bellen has described himself as a centrist liberal and supports green and social liberal policies. As discussed in his 2015 book, he is supportive of the European Union and advocates European federalism. During the presidential election, he appealed to the political centre and was endorsed by the leaders of both the conservative Austrian People's Party and the Social Democratic Party. Van der Bellen is the second green president of a European Union country (after Raimonds Vējonis of Latvia) and the first to be directly elected by popular vote.
Van der Bellen, who is known privately by the nickname "Sascha" (a Russian diminutive of Alexander), was born in Vienna, the son of Alexander Konstantin (1898–1966), and Alma (née Siibold [Siebold, Sieboldt]; 1907–1993). His father was an aristocratic Russian-born banker of Baltic German, Russian German, Dutch, and Estonian descent, while his mother was Estonian.
The Van der Bellen family is descended from Johann Abraham van der Bellen, who was born in the Netherlands and who moved to the Russian Empire in the 18th century, and who volunteered for service at a hospital in Moscow and who later became a military doctor in Pskov. In Russia, the family was recognised as noble in the early 19th century and many family members held prominent roles in the local government of Pskov. Van der Bellen's grandfather, Aleksander von der Bellen (1859–1924), was a liberal politician who was head of the local Pskov government before 1918, when the Imperial German Army invaded Pskov during the Russian Civil War. In the summer of 1919, when Pskov was briefly occupied by the Estonian Army, Van der Bellen's grandparents, father, and uncles fled the advancing Bolshevik Red Army and settled in the newly independent Estonia.
The surname was spelled "von der Bellen" in Imperial Russia, with "von der" being a nobiliary particle. The family changed the spelling of the name to the Dutch "Van der Bellen" (formerly also "Van-Der-Bellen") in Estonia, where all privileges of the nobility had been abolished, and where the use of the German particle von as an indicator of noble origin in surnames (as was common in Russia) was illegal.
In 1931, Van der Bellen's divorced father married Estonian native Alma Siebold. He acquired naturalised Estonian citizenship in 1934. After Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, the couple fled to Germany and ended up destitute in a refugee camp in Werneck. They eventually settled in Vienna, where Van der Bellen was born, before again fleeing the approaching Red Army in 1945 and arriving in Tyrol, where Van der Bellen spent his childhood. He has described himself as a "child of refugees".
Under current Estonian law, Alexander Van der Bellen is considered to automatically hold Estonian citizenship as a right of birth, because his parents were citizens of Estonia prior to the Soviet invasion of the country (16 June 1940). For practical purposes the Van der Bellen family was stateless following the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Together with his parents Van der Bellen was granted Austrian citizenship in 1958, at the age of 14. Although his parents spoke Russian with each other, Van der Bellen only learned a few words in the language. He explained that his parents "wanted to avoid everything [in him] that indicated that they were refugees".
In 1962, he graduated from the Akademisches Gymnasium in Innsbruck. He studied economics at the University of Innsbruck and received a doctorate in 1970. From 1968 to 1970 he worked as an assistant at the Institute of Public Finance at the University of Innsbruck, and from 1972 to 1974 at the International Institute of Management of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center in West Berlin. He obtained his habilitation in economics in 1975.
In 1976, he was appointed associate professor at the University of Innsbruck. In 1980, he became professor of economics at the University of Vienna. Subsequently, he took over the chair for economics there. From 1990 to 1994 he was dean of the faculty for social sciences and economics at the University of Vienna.
Van der Bellen is an expert on planning and financing processes in the public sector, infrastructure financing, fiscal policy, public expenditure, government regulation policy, public enterprises and environmental and transport policy.
A former member of the Social Democratic Party, Van der Bellen became Member of the National Council of Austria (Nationalrat) for the Austrian Green Party in 1994. On 13 December 1997 he became their federal spokesperson, and in 1999 became chairman of the Greens Parliamentary Party in the National Council. He resigned after the September 2008 election, when the Greens lost votes for the first time in a decade. In 2010 he became Commissioner of the City of Vienna for Universities and Research, and in 2012 he left Parliament and joined the Vienna City Council.
Van der Bellen ran as a nominally independent candidate supported by the Green Party in the 2016 presidential election, and finished second in the first round before winning the second round against right-wing Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer.
In the close second round Van der Bellen won 50.3% of the votes cast to Norbert Hofer's 49.7%, a margin of 30,863 votes. On 1 July 2016, a week before he was to take office, the results of the second round of voting were annulled by the Constitutional Court of Austria, requiring the election to be re-held.
On 4 December 2016 Van der Bellen defeated Hofer in the re-run of the election with 53.8% of the votes, increasing his margin of victory in terms of votes received by a factor of ten despite predictions that the new election would be similarly close.
The fresh election saw an increase in voter turnout, from 72.7% in May to 74.2%, defying predictions that election fatigue and cold temperatures would lead to a reduction in participation. Hofer conceded soon after the first exit polls were reported.
When sworn in, Van der Bellen became the first nationally elected European head of state with a green background: in 2015, Raimonds Vējonis of the Latvian Green Party became that nation's president through an indirect election. Van der Bellen was sworn in on 26 January 2017.
In 2001, Van der Bellen said that he turned from an "arrogant anti-capitalist" into a "broad-minded left-liberal" over the course of his political career. In his 2015 autobiography, Van der Bellen described himself as a liberal positioned in the political centre while downplaying his earlier description as left-liberal, and said he was inspired by the Anglo-Saxon liberal tradition, particularly John Stuart Mill. He is strongly supportive of the European Union, and advocates European federalism. During the 2016 presidential election, he appealed to the political centre and used "Unser Präsident der Mitte" (Our President of the Centre) for his campaign slogan.
Van der Bellen has argued that Europe should accept refugees who have fled to Europe from war zones in Syria and elsewhere, and has often mentioned his own background as the son of refugees in debates. He has opposed the government's decision to impose a limit on how many asylum-seekers it will allow into Austria.
Van der Bellen has commented that due to emerging islamophobia and prejudice against women wearing headscarves, he could foresee a day when all non-Muslim women might also be asked to wear headscarves as a sign of solidarity with women who wear them on religious grounds. The remarks were criticized widely, especially on the political right. President Van der Bellen later attempted to clarify this position on his Facebook page.
Van der Bellen has criticized U.S. President Donald Trump. He has opined that the British withdrawal from the European Union is damaging to the economies of both the United Kingdom and Europe. He is opposed to recognising the Russian annexation of Crimea. He has stated that the Austrian embassy in Israel should remain in Tel Aviv.
Van der Bellen has criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters after mass pro-Erdoğan protests by Turks in Austria, saying: "In Austria there is freedom to demonstrate as long as it is peaceful. [...] Everyone that accepts the right to demonstrate, has to see that the same rights – such as freedom of speech, press freedom, independent justice system, and freedom to demonstrate are being denied in Turkey by President Erdogan."
Van der Bellen married his long-term girlfriend, Doris (née Schmidauer), in December 2015. Earlier in the year and by mutual consent, he was divorced from his first wife of many years, Brigitte, with whom he has two adult sons. Schmidauer has expressed a desire to continue working while she serves as Austria's First Lady; she has been involved with the Green Party since 1989 and at the time of Van der Bellen's election is responsible for personnel and management of the Green Party Parliamentary Club, a position she has held since at least July 2013.
Van der Bellen was raised in the Lutheran religion, but has ceased to practise it or espouse a belief in God; however, he professes himself a secular follower of the moral precepts of the New Testament. Grand Decoration of Honour in Gold with Star of the Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria (2004)
Grand Star of the Decoration of Honour for Services to the Republic of Austria (2017)