Freedom in the World
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The Freedom Party, a far-right party involved as a junior partner in government, split in April 2005, with its best-known figure and most of its leadership joining a new party, now the junior coalition partner. Austria's government continued to promote economic reforms, that aim to encourage jobs and investment but which could weaken the country's finances over the next several years.
Modern Austria emerged at the end of World War I, when the Austro-Hungar-ian Empire was dismembered. It was voluntarily annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938 and suffered the defeat of Hitler's regime. Postwar Austria, by consent of the World War II Allies, remained neutral between the Cold War blocs. Focusing instead on economic growth, Austria has developed one of the wealthiest economies in Europe.
From 1986 until 2000, the two biggest political parties-the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) and the center-right People's Party of Austria (OVP)-governed together in a grand coalition. Members of the two parties shared in the administration of cabinet ministries, as well as in many other government functions. Labor relations were corporatist, with management and unions both represented not only in individual firms' decision making, but also in national policy making.
The election of October 1999 saw the emergence of the first government since 1970 not to include the SPO. Instead, the OVP formed a coalition with the Freedom Party, a far-right nationalist party with vestigial Nazi sympathies. The Freedom Party had grown steadily in the polls as voters became disaffected with the power sharing of the large big parties and the near impossibility of major political change. The Freedom Party won its biggest ever share of the vote, 27 percent, in the 1999 election and was thus included in a coalition with the OVP's Wolfgang Schuessel as chancellor. The reaction among fellow members of the European Union (EU) to the election results was immediate and dramatic. In 2000, the EU officially suspended ties with Austria. Though this move had little practical effect, technically it meant that the other 14 EU countries had to deal with Austria on a bilateral basis rather than through the EU. Moreover, support in Austria for the Freedom Party jumped, as Austrian voters resented the EU's attempts to interfere with the choice they had expressed at the polls. Later in 2000, the EU reinstated Austria.
One effect of the EU sanctions was that Joerg Haider, the Freedom Party's leader, withdrew from that post and contented himself with the governorship of the state of Carinthia. Haider had been both Freedom's biggest vote-winner and the source of its major controversies. For example, he referred to Nazi death camps as "punishment camps," though he also referred to the Nazi regime as a "cruel and brutal dictatorship." With Haider's official withdrawal, Austrian politics returned to near-normality, and the Freedom Party was forced to moderate its far-right stances as it dealt with the day-to-day reality of governing.
After a Freedom Party leadership struggle, the party withdrew from the coalition in September 2002. The parliamentary elections of November 2002 saw Freedom's vote share fall from 27 percent in 1999 to 10 percent. In subsequent cabinet negotiations, the Freedom Party rejoined the coalition with the OVP, but this time clearly as the junior partner.
The Freedom Party continued to lose support in 2004. Though Haider was reelected governor of Carinthia in a March 2004 state election, the party fared badly in the European Parliament elections in June. Having captured 23 percent of the vote in those elections in 1999, the Freedom Party received just 6 percent in 2004. The poor performance fueled internal rifts in the party over whether it should remain in government and court unpopularity, or return to its role as an outsider and populist party. Most of the party's leadership and members of parliament, as well as Haider, chose in spring 2005 to leave the party and form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO), leaving the Freedom Party as a rump (though it retains many activists). The BZO is now the OVP's junior coalition partner. Opposition parties, including the SPO, have called for new elections, claming that the new alliance has no democratic mandate. However, Schuessel has resisted this call, hoping his new coalition survives until the end of the parliamentary term in late 2006. In state elections in October 2005, the opposition parties, the SPO and Freedom Party, outperformed the OVP and BZO.
Relations with the EU remained Austria's most important foreign affairs issue throughout the year. The enlargement of the EU to include former Soviet bloc countries in spring 2004 was also particularly important, as Austria borders four of them (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia). However, Austria is skeptical about Turkey's application. The main parties' stances range from skeptically supportive (the OVP) to outright hostile, but the EU began official talks with Turkey on October 3, 2005, with the Austrians eventually accepting an earlier EU diplomatic formulation, that Turkey's accession was a goal but not a guaranteed outcome. Austria will assume the EU's six-month rotating presidency in the first half of 2006.
In his second term, Schuessel has sought to tackle several thorny economic issues, including pushing privatizations, trimming pensions, and generally keeping a tight rein on the budget. Economic growth, which was just 0.7 percent in 2003, improved somewhat in 2004 but began to slip again in 2005. In August, the government signed a "regional employment and growth offensive," which offered new inducements for business investment and worker training. The package aims to increase the long-term growth rate and bring down joblessness, but could be expensive.
Austrians can change their government democratically. The lower house of the federal parliament is the Nationalrat (National Council), with 183 members chosen at simultaneous district, state, and federal elections to ensure both regional representation and broad proportional fairness. Members of the Nationalrat serve a four-year term, and the chancellor, appointed by the president, requires the support of the legislature to govern. The members of the upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), are chosen by state parliaments.
Perhaps ironically, the participation of the Freedom Party in government emphasized Austria's basic democratic rights when other European countries tried in 2000 to induce Austrians to forgo their duly elected choice. Though there are competitive political parties and free and fair elections, the traditional practice of grand coalitions in Austria disillusioned many with the political process. While frustration with the cozy relationship between the OVP and the SPO helped lead to the rise of the Freedom Party as a protest party, Freedom's participation in government brought it closer to the mainstream right.
Austria is less corrupt than during the 1980s, when campaign donation laws were tightened somewhat. Austria was ranked 10 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are free, though not highly pluralistic. The end of the monopoly by the state broadcaster ORF has not brought significant competition to the broadcast market, and print media ownership is concentrated in a few hands. Harassment and libel lawsuits by politicians (notably from the Freedom Party) against investigative and critical journalists have hampered reporters' work. There are no restrictions on internet access.
Religious freedom is respected in Austria and enshrined in the constitution. However, there are only 12 officially recognized religions, and these have the ability to draw on state funds for religious education. Joining the group of state-recognized religions requires a period of 10 years of observation. The Jehovah's Witnesses have complained that this practice violates their freedom of religion, although they are recognized as a "confessional community." Academic freedom is generally respected.
The rights to freedom of assembly and association are protected in the constitution. Civic organizations and nongovernmental organizations are able to operate without restrictions. Trade unions have traditionally been powerful. They not only are free to organize and strike, but have been considered an essential partner in national policy making. Strikes held in May 2003 against the government's controversial pension reforms did not stop those reforms from going through.
The judiciary is independent, and the Constitutional Court examines the compatibility of legislation with the constitution. Austria is a member of the Council of Europe, and its citizens have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. The quality of prisons and police generally meet high European standards, though isolated incidences of police brutality, as well as crowded and sometimes harsh prison conditions, are reported.
Residents generally are afforded equal protection under the law. However, immigration has fueled some resentment towards minorities and foreigners: as of 2002, Austria had one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers per capita in the world. Since a tightening in December 2003, the asylum law is among the strictest in the developed world. Under that law, criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some asylum seekers could be deported while appeals of their cases are held. New arrivals will be asked for full statements within 72 hours. The UNHCR has also criticized shortages of qualified legal advisers and interpreters for detainees.
A 1979 law guarantees women freedom from discrimination in various areas, especially the workplace. A 1993 law sought to increase women's employment in government agencies where women were under-represented.