Freedom in the World
Along with other countries in the European Union (EU), Austria experienced a large influx of asylum seekers and other migrants in 2015, many of them from Syria. The migration flow formed the background for increasingly stronger populist rhetoric from the ring-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) party, which made gains in local elections in October. In February, legislators passed amendments to the law establishing recognition for Islam, strengthening protections for adherents of the religion while also restricting foreign funding for mosques and imams. Throughout the fall, lawmakers debated a controversial security law that would substantially increase the government’s abilities to collect information with little oversight. Weak mechanisms for government transparency remained a notable concern.
Political Rights: 37 / 40 (−1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The lower house of Parliament, the National Council (Nationalrat), has 183 members chosen through proportional representation at the district, state, and federal levels. Members serve five-year terms, extended from four in 2008. The president, who is elected for a six-year term, appoints the chancellor, who needs the support of the legislature to govern. The 62 members of the upper house, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), are chosen by state legislatures for five- or six-year terms.
In the 2013 legislative elections, Chancellor Werner Faymann’s center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) won 52 seats in the National Council, and the center-right People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP) took 47. Their combined vote share of 50.9 percent, down from 78.8 percent in 2002, was their worst since World War II, and their combined number of seats fell from 108. Both parties were weakened by corruption scandals and by public discontent with their pro-EU policies. In December 2013, the SPÖ and the ÖVP reached an agreement to continue governing as a grand coalition.
The FPÖ took 40 seats in the 2013 elections, 6 more than it had won in 2008. Team Stronach for Austria (FRANK), a Euroskeptic, pro-business party founded in 2012 by Austrian-born Canadian car-parts magnate Frank Stronach, took 11 seats. The Austrian Green Party won 24 seats, while the centrist, pro-business New Austria (NEOS) won 9 seats. The far-right Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which split from the FPÖ in 2005 and is considered less extreme, failed to win any seats, falling short of the 4 percent threshold necessary for inclusion in the National Council. Voter turnout was approximately 75 percent.
In the October 2015 municipal elections in Vienna, the FPÖ won one third of the vote but failed to muster the number needed to unseat Mayor Michael Häupl. In recent years, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has sought to adopt a more moderate tone for the party and curb its openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Nevertheless, during the election campaign, Strache expressed hostility toward refugees and immigration in general.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Although Austria has competitive political parties and free and fair elections, the traditional practice of grand coalitions has fostered public disillusionment in the political process. The participation of Slovene, Hungarian, and Roma minorities in local government remains limited despite governmental efforts to provide bilingual education, media, and access to federal funds. There is little minority representation in Parliament. After the 2013 elections, the National Council included one Muslim man and three Turkish-born Muslim women. According to the 2014 edition of the Migrant Integration Policy Index, Austria provides immigrants with fewer opportunities for citizenship and political participation than most Western European countries.
C. Functioning of Government: 10 / 12 (−1)
Recent corruption scandals have damaged the reputation of Austria’s political class. In August 2015, a former employee of FPÖ politician Uwe Scheuch and a media owner were convicted of abuses related to the fraudulent use of state advertising funds. In a 2013 Ernst & Young survey of business managers in Austria, more than 40 percent of respondents considered fraud and bribery to be widespread. Austria was ranked 16 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
In 2014, Austria, along with Luxembourg, agreed to lift its veto of EU legislation that aims to end bank secrecy laws; among other things, the law requires member states to automatically share information on accounts held by EU citizens with the tax authorities in the citizens’ home countries. A number of issues with transparency nevertheless persist. The Right to Information Rating, which assesses freedom of information laws worldwide, listed Austria last out of 104 countries assessed in its 2015 rankings. The government has also been criticized for lacking transparency in public procurement, and for failing to implement comprehensive protections for whistleblowers.
Civil Liberties: 58 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
The federal constitution and the Media Law of 1981 provide the basis for free media in Austria, and the government generally respects these provisions in practice. 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. Despite a 2003 law to promote media diversity, media ownership remains highly concentrated. There are no restrictions on internet access.
While there is no official censorship, Austrian law prohibits any form of neo-Nazism or anti-Semitism, as well as the public denial, approval, or justification of Nazi crimes, including the Holocaust. Legislation that came into effect in July 2015 outlawed the use of certain number and letter combinations for vehicle license plates because of their allusions to Nazism or the Islamic State (IS) militant group. The FPÖ has been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years and has additionally been criticized for fueling anti-Muslim feelings in Austria through controversial advertising campaigns.
A number of recent high-profile court cases have centered on the balance between freedom of speech and the prohibition of hate speech. In July, based on a complaint filed by an Austrian Muslim organization, public prosecutors launched an investigation into a speech by Dutch politician Geert Wilders at an FPÖ gathering in Vienna in March. The organization claimed that Wilders, who had compared the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and made references to Nazi ideology, had denigrated Islam and violated restrictions on speech about Nazism.
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 have complained that the law impedes their legitimate claims for recognition and demotes them to second- or third-class status. In February, legislators amended a 1912 law that determined Islam’s legal status in Austria, expanding the rights and protections granted to followers of the religion, including officially recognizing Muslim holidays. However, local Muslim groups and religious watchdogs criticized a portion of the amendments that banned foreign funding for Muslim houses of worship and imams, noting that such restrictions do not exist for other religious groups in the country.
There are no government restrictions on academic freedom, and private discussion is both free and vibrant.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected in the constitution and in practice. Nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions. Trade unions are free to organize and to strike, and they are considered an essential partner in national policymaking.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
The judiciary is independent, and the Constitutional Court examines the compatibility of legislation with the constitution without political influence or interference. Conditions in prisons generally meet high European standards. In February 2015, Rakhat Aliyev—a former ally of Kazakhstan’s president who fell afoul of the government in 2007—was found dead in an Austrian prison, where he was in investigative custody in connection to the death of two bankers in Kazakhstan. In December, the Austrian justice ministry dismissed claims that Aliyev had been murdered.
In 2015, debate about the relationship between privacy and national security dominated public dialogue. Draft legislation on state security, which first came to a vote in Parliament in October, aimed to establish a new secret service, dramatically increase the government’s capability to collect information, and reduce judicial oversight over state security bodies. In the face of significant public backlash, the ÖVP and SPÖ agreed in November to change the draft to grant wider powers to the existing Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), rather than to a new agency. At year’s end, the legislation was scheduled for a vote in early 2016. Antiterrorism legislation passed in 2014 allowed the state to revoke the citizenship of anyone who has traveled abroad to fight with extremist militant groups.
Individuals are generally afforded equal protection under the law. However, increasing immigration flows have fueled some resentment and discriminatory practices toward minorities and foreigners. In 2015, Austria was a destination for a large number of asylum seekers as well as a major transit point for those trying to reach northern European countries, especially Germany. The government received more than 85,000 asylum applications during the year, marking an increase of more than 200 percent from 2014. While many Austrians showed themselves to be welcoming to refugees, growing numbers expressed support for the exclusionary views of the FPÖ, spurring the party’s strong showing in the Vienna local elections. In a report published in October, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance denounced the negative and hostile rhetoric of the FPÖ and other groups toward minorities and migrants, including refugees. In November, the Austrian Press Council rebuked Kronen Zeitung for publishing an article suggesting that all refugees could be potential terrorists.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has criticized the country’s asylum legislation for being too restrictive. Some asylum seekers can be deported while appeals are pending, and new arrivals are asked for full statements within 72 hours. In addition, the number of people who have been naturalized has fallen dramatically since the establishment of a more restrictive national integration policy in 2009.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
Austrian citizens enjoy freedom of movement and choice of residence. 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.
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. The 2009 Second Protection Against Violence Act increased penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence and authorized further measures against chronic offenders. Women made up 33 percent of the National Council after the 2013 elections.
A 2009 law permits civil partnerships for same-sex couples, giving them equal rights to pension benefits and alimony, but same-sex marriage is not recognized. The law does not provide same-sex couples with the same adoption rights or access to assisted reproductive technologies as heterosexual couples. In 2013, Parliament approved an amendment to the civil code to allow the biological children of an individual to be adopted by his or her partner, but it rejected a bill that would grant same-sex couples unrestricted adoption rights.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year