Austria has a democratic system of government that guarantees political rights and civil liberties. The country has historically been governed by a grand coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). In recent years, the political system has faced pressure from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a right-wing, populist party that openly entertains nationalist and xenophobic sentiments.
- The ÖVP formed a coalition with the Green Party in January, marking the first time the Green Party entered national government. The previous ÖVP–FPÖ coalition collapsed in 2019 after a video of the then FPÖ leader offering state contracts in return for donations and favorable media coverage was made public in the so-called Ibizagate affair.
- In November, 4 people were killed and 23 were injured by an assailant in Vienna, who was later killed by police. The attacker was previously imprisoned for attempting to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group and participated in a deradicalization program before receiving parole.
- In December, the Constitutional Court (VfGH) overturned a 2019 law banning students under the age of 10 from wearing headscarves in elementary schools, ruling that it discriminated against Muslims.
- The authorities instituted a COVID-19-related lockdown between March and May and issued new restrictions on mass gatherings in September. New lockdowns were imposed in November and December as cases rose. Austrian authorities reported over 356,000 cases and 6,086 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Executive elections in Austria are generally free and fair. The president is elected for a six-year term and has predominantly ceremonial duties. The president does, however, appoint the chancellor, who also needs the support of the legislature to govern. President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, was elected in 2016 after a close and controversial poll that featured a repeat of the runoff between Van der Bellen and FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer. The runoff was repeated after the VfGH established that there had been problems with the handling of postal ballots.
Following snap elections in 2019, an ÖVP–Green Party government took office in January 2020, marking the first time the Green Party has participated in a national government. Sebastian Kurz of the ÖVP, who led the previous ÖVP–FPÖ coalition, returned as chancellor.1
- 1. Austria: Freedom in the World 2020 Country Report | Freedom House A1
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Legislative elections in Austria are generally considered credible. The National Council, the lower house, has 183 members chosen through proportional representation at the district, state, and federal levels. Members serve five-year terms. The 61 members of the upper house, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), are chosen by state legislatures for five– or six-year terms.
Snap National Council elections took place in September 2019, after the Ibizagate affair triggered the previous ÖVP–FPÖ coalition’s collapse. The ÖVP was the clear winner with 71 seats, though it did not win a parliamentary majority. The Green Party returned after a two-year absence from parliament, winning 26 seats. Support for the FPÖ collapsed, with the party losing 20 seats and holding 31. The SPÖ won 40, while the liberal NEOS claimed 15. Voter turnout was around 75.5 percent.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
Austria’s electoral laws and framework are fair and generally implemented impartially by the relevant bodies.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Austria has competitive political parties that form and operate without encountering undue obstacles. Recent years have seen the rise and fall of various competing parties and coalitions through democratic processes.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties have a realistic opportunity to gain representation. Until recently, Austria has often been governed by grand coalitions, a trend that has fostered some public disillusionment with the political process. An ÖVP–FPÖ government, which collapsed in 2019, was succeeded by an ÖVP–Green Party coalition in January 2020.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Austrians are generally free to make their own political choices without pressure from the military, business leaders, or other groups that are not democratically accountable.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The participation of Slovene, Hungarian, and Romany minorities in local government remains limited. There is little minority representation in the legislature. The number of people who have been naturalized (thus gaining certain political rights) has fallen since the establishment of a more restrictive national integration policy in 2009. Individuals must have lived in Austria for 10 years, 5 of them as a permanent resident, to qualify for naturalization.
Several political parties include support for gender equality in their platforms. In the 2019 elections, 39 percent of the members elected to the parliament were women, a slight increase compared to 2017. The country’s first majority-female cabinet was appointed in January 2020.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The freely elected president and legislative representatives work with the chancellor, vice chancellor, and cabinet ministers to determine the policies of the government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
Public-sector corruption is problematic, and the political class is widely perceived as corrupt. The Council of Europe’s (CoE) Group of States against Corruption has criticized Austria for weak party-finance legislation and for failing to adequately regulate lobbying and prevent corruption amongst parliamentarians. Austria has seen an increase in indictments for, and the rising costs of, corruption in recent years.
Investigations into Ibizagate—which began with the 2019 release of a video of then FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache offering state contracts in exchange for donations and favorable media coverage—continued in 2020. A parliamentary inquiry into the affair launched in June and was continuing at year’s end. In December, an Austrian who allegedly filmed the video in 2017 was arrested in Germany. A decision on his extradition was pending at year’s end.
Former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, who faced bribery and embezzlement charges for providing inside information on a 2004 sale of public housing, received an eight-year prison sentence in December 2020, though he vowed to appeal.
In 2017, the Ministry of Defense accused European aircraft manufacturer Airbus of fraud by overcharging the government in a 2003 transaction to account for the cost of kickbacks. In April 2020, a Vienna court ruled that a subsequently launched criminal probe should end. In November, prosecutors elected to close their investigation into Airbus.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Austria’s government has frequently been criticized for inadequate transparency. Official secrecy remains enshrined in the constitution. For over six years, a draft freedom-of-information law has been mired in parliamentary procedures. It remained so at the end of 2020, despite the ÖVP–Green government’s pledge to improve transparency. Austria’s overall legal framework on access to information, containing vague criteria for compliance and lacking a strong appeals mechanism, is weak.
Transparency on COVID-19-related expenditures was also lacking. Spending related to the government’s stimulus plan, valued at €50 billion ($60.5 billion) by June 2020, was routed through a government-controlled company, limiting the parliament’s ability to scrutinize outlays.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
The federal constitution and the Media Law of 1981 provide the basis for free media in Austria, and the government generally respects these provisions. However, libel and slander laws protect politicians and government officials, many of whom—particularly members of the FPÖ—have filed defamation suits in recent years. Media ownership remains highly concentrated, particularly in the provinces.
The government exerts some influence on the state broadcaster, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). In November 2020, ORF board member Hans Peter Haselsteiner resigned, voicing disapproval over perceived political interference and the stalling of reforms meant to bolster the broadcaster’s independence.
The Austrian government was opaque in some of its dealings with the press in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, the Association of the Foreign Press criticized the government’s use of COVID-19 measures to allow only ORF and Austrian Press Agency correspondents at its press conferences, effectively barring foreign journalists from attending in person.
While there is no official censorship, Austrian law prohibits any form of neo-Nazism or antisemitism, as well as the public denial, approval, or justification of Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||3.003 4.004|
Religious freedom is constitutionally guaranteed. Austrian law divides religious organizations into three legal categories: officially recognized religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Many religious minority groups allege that the law impedes their legitimate claims for recognition and demotes them to second– or third-class status.
Foreign funding for Muslim houses of worship and imams is prohibited by a 2015 law; Orthodox Christian and Jewish groups with similarly strong links to communities abroad face no such restrictions. In 2019, constitutional courts confirmed the legality of a 2015 law that enabled the expulsion of 40 imams from Turkey in 2018. The FPÖ has been criticized for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment through controversial advertising campaigns. In recent years, antisemitic and anti-Islamic tendencies have become more prevalent.
Full-face coverings were banned in 2017, which was generally interpreted as targeting women who wear burqas and niqabs (facial veils), even though very few women in Austria wear those garments. In 2019, the government banned the wearing of headscarves at elementary schools for students under the age of 10. It did not apply to children wearing a kippa. While the January 2020 ÖVP–Green coalition agreement included a commitment to renew and expand the law to apply to students as old as 14, the VfGH overturned it in December, saying it discriminated against Muslims.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is generally upheld, and the educational system is free from extensive political indoctrination.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Private discussion in Austria is generally free and unrestricted. However, there have been some difficulties related to the balance between ensuring freedom of speech and enforcing legal prohibitions on hate speech. A debate surrounding more extensive online surveillance through state authorities is ongoing.
In September 2020, the ÖVP–Green government published a draft bill that would mandate the deletion of online content deemed illegal within 24 hours. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) criticized the bill, warning that individual users would have little recourse if their content were removed. The bill remained under consideration at year’s end.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected and respected in practice. However, the authorities did limit assemblies under COVID-19-related measures. Gatherings of more than five people were banned in March 2020, though restrictions were loosened in May. New limits on assembly were introduced in September, and new lockdowns were instituted in November and December as cases rose.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
Trade unions are free to organize and to strike, and they are considered an essential partner in national policymaking. According to government statistics, some 1.4 million workers are members of trade unions.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is independent, and the Constitutional Court examines the compatibility of legislation with the constitution without political influence or interference. The CoE’s Consultative Council of European Judges criticized a slight lack of independence in an analysis of the Administrative Court of Vienna conducted in 2019. Austrian judges are appointed by the executive instead of a politically independent body, which the CoE criticized as an insufficient separation of the state government from the judicial system.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matters. However, scandals involving Austria’s intelligence apparatus in recent years raised concerns about the potential politicization of the justice system, as well as respect for due process.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
People in Austria are generally free from the illegitimate use of physical force, war, and insurgencies. However, terrorist threats are a concern. In November 2020, 4 people were killed and 23 were injured in Vienna by an assailant who was then killed by police. The government disclosed that the assailant, Kujtim Fejzulai, was previously imprisoned for attempting to travel to Syria to join the IS. Fejzulai participated in a deradicalization program while imprisoned and was subsequently paroled.
In December, Austrian authorities arrested five individuals accused of participating in a far-right group and confiscated over 70 weapons. Interior Minister Karl Nehammer reported that the weapons cache may have been meant for a “far-right militia,” and noted that the unnamed suspects were known neo-Nazis.
Conditions in prisons generally meet high European standards.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Some marginalized groups face difficulty exercising their human rights before the law. Strong rhetoric has been directed against refugees and migrants in recent years. Some asylum seekers can be deported while appeals are pending. In 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the Austrian asylum system did not meet international human rights standards. The ÖVP–Green coalition espoused a strict stance on asylum in its January 2020 coalition agreement, vowing to preemptively detain asylum seekers who are deemed dangerous. Asylum seekers were also affected by COVID-19 measures; in May 2020, a group of 300 asylum seekers were quarantined in a Vienna facility despite a face-mask shortage. Some residents attempted to escape, fearing they were to be deported.
LGBT+ people face some societal discrimination. Hate-crime legislation prohibits incitement based on sexual orientation. However, no law prohibits service providers from denying services on that basis.
Despite some improvement since 2005, gender equality remains an issue in Austria. According to Eurostat, Austrian men earned 19.9 percent more than women in 2019.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Austrian citizens enjoy freedom of movement and choice of residence. However, Austrians faced strict limits on movement in March 2020 under COVID-19-related measures. Those restrictions expired in May, though new lockdowns were imposed in November and December as cases increased.
Roma and other ethnic minorities face discrimination in the labor and housing markets. The Labor Ministry has sought to promote integration of younger immigrants by providing German-language instruction and job training.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
Austrians may freely exercise the right to own property and establish businesses.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Same-sex marriage became legal in Austria in 2019. Restrictions on same-sex couples adopting children ended in 2016.
The 2009 Second Protection against Violence Act increased penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence and authorized further punitive measures against chronic offenders.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
A 1979 law guarantees women’s freedom from discrimination in various areas, including the workplace. However, the income gap between men and women remains significant.
According to the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, the Austrian government is making significant efforts to fight human trafficking, with convicted traffickers receiving significant sentences. In June, the CoE lauded Austria’s progress in fighting trafficking, though it also noted that survivors were not consistently compensated.
Media reports from June and September 2020 noted that seasonal farm workers often lived in poor conditions and did not receive the minimum wage.
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