Austria has a democratic system of government that guarantees political rights and civil liberties. The country has historically been governed by grand coalitions 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.
- Several leading ÖVP and FPÖ politicians were investigated in connection with corruption and embezzlement cases throughout the year, including then chancellor Sebastian Kurz and finance minister Gernot Blümel. Kurz resigned as chancellor in October, and stepped down as ÖVP party leader in December; Blümel also resigned in December.
- Foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg became chancellor following Kurz’s resignation in October, but also stepped down from the role after Kurz left politics in December. ÖVP party officials chose interior minister Karl Nehammer to become chancellor and to replace Kurz as party chair; he was appointed to the chancellorship in December, but was still awaiting confirmation of his ÖVP leadership position at year’s end.
- Following years of investigations by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for Combating Economic Crimes and Corruption (WKStA), former FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was found guilty on charges of corruption in August. He received a 15-month suspended sentence.
|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, former Green Party leader, prevailed 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 Constitutional Court (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.
In October 2021, Kurz was forced to resign the chancellorship over allegations of corruption; after Kurz’s resignation, then foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg was appointed chancellor. However, after Kurz announced he planned to leave the ÖVP leadership—and politics altogether—in December, Schallenberg also stepped down. After Schallenberg's resignation, ÖVP party officials chose then interior minister Karl Nehammer to become both party leader and chancellor. Nehammer was sworn in as chancellor in December, but had yet to be confirmed as party chairman by year’s end.
|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 New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) claimed 15.
|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 are fair and 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 any 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 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 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.
Non-Austrian EU citizens are entitled to vote in municipal elections as well as in European Parliament elections.
|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 (GRECO) has criticized Austria for weak party-finance legislation and for failing to regulate lobbying and prevent corruption. Austria has seen an increase in indictments for, and rising costs of, corruption in recent years.
A petition for a referendum against corruption was launched by several prominent politicians in June 2021. The petition was submitted to the Interior Ministry in December.
Investigations into Ibizagate—which began with the 2019 release of a video of then FPÖ leader Strache offering state contracts in exchange for donations and favorable media coverage—continued in 2021. In July, a parliamentary inquiry committee concluded its Ibizagate investigation; opposition leaders believe the committee’s findings point to misconduct within the FPÖ and ÖVP. Strache was found guilty of corruption in August, and given a 15-month suspended sentence.
Further investigations into allegations of bribery and corruption involving senior FPÖ and ÖVP politicians, including then chancellor Kurz, continued throughout the year. In October, Kurz resigned as chancellor, and in December, stepped down as ÖVP chairman. Finance minister Gernot Blümel also resigned in December, following a months-long investigation into allegations of his involvement with a high-profile corruption case involving several FPÖ and ÖVP politicians. He denied any wrongdoing, and had not been criminally charged at year’s end.
|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, and Austria’s overall legal framework on access to information is weak.
In February 2021, the ÖVP–Green Party government agreed on a draft Freedom of Information Act, which would provide for the end of official secrecy; the draft was presented to the National Council later that month and passed to the Federal Chancellery in April, where it remained at year’s end. The draft legislation has been criticized as weak and overly narrow by information rights groups.
|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. 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, and the government exerts some influence on the state broadcaster, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF).
Media outlets are eligible to receive government funding through advertising and in the form of press subsidies intended to ensure media diversity. In recent years, independent media outlets have expressed concern that government spending on media—which amounted to nearly 70 million euros in 2020—lacks efficient oversight, allowing funds to be distributed arbitrarily and without transparency.
In 2021, several ÖVP politicians resigned over allegations that they had purchased favorable news coverage during the 2017 elections.
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-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. 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.
In May 2021, a progovernment organization published a controversial map showing the locations of more than 600 Islamic religious institutions throughout Austria. The map has been criticized by religious organizations and opposition politicians, who fear that it stigmatizes Muslims and could lead to an increase in anti-Islamic hate crimes.
|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.
In July 2021, numerous amendments were made to the Universities Act, which regulates the administration of Austria’s public universities. University governing bodies have criticized the legislation, citing concerns that the amendments will jeopardize the autonomy of public universities.
|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.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected and respected in practice. However, since March 2020, the government has instituted several lockdowns in response to COVID-19 outbreaks; when lockdown measures are in place, assemblies are subject to strict regulation. In December 2021, the government lifted most restrictions for people who are vaccinated against COVID-19.
Despite COVID-19-related restrictions on public gatherings, large protests against lockdown measures—including the November announcement of a vaccine mandate—continued throughout 2021.
|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 is generally held in high regard among Austrians. The Constitutional Court examines the compatibility of legislation with the constitution without political influence or interference.
Austrian judges are appointed by the executive instead of a politically independent body, which the CoE has criticized as an insufficient separation of the state government from the judicial system. Additionally, in July 2021, a European Commission report found that government officials have repeatedly engaged in public criticism of WKStA prosecutors during anticorruption investigations, which has negatively affected public perception of judicial independence.
|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, and 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 was previously imprisoned for attempting to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State (IS). An independent inquiry into the attack found that counterterrorism agencies “lack sufficient capacity” to adequately address existing terrorism risks.
In December 2020, Austrian authorities arrested five individuals accused of participating in a far-right group and confiscated over 70 weapons. Then 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 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 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. Deportations continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to conflict between the coalition partners in 2021.
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, gender equality remains an issue in Austria. According to Eurostat, the gender wage gap in Austria is among the largest in the EU.
|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. However, Austrians periodically faced strict limits on movement starting in March 2020 under COVID-19-related measures.
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 courses 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. However, gender-based violence remains a problem, and Austria has one of the highest rates of femicide in the EU: according to official government data, 350 women were killed between 2010 and 2021.
|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.
Media reports in 2020 and 2021 highlighted the exploitation of seasonal workers, who often lived in poor conditions and did not receive the minimum wage.
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Global Freedom Score93 100 free