Freedom in the World
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Although the 2006 parliamentary elections resulted in a surprising victory for the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO), the party did not capture enough seats to form a government alone. After weeks of negotiation, the only possibility seemed to be a grand coalition with the center-right People’s Party of Austria (OVP), but the two could not agree to form a government.
Modern Austria emerged at the end of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian 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 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. Support in Austria for the Freedom Party jumped, as Austrian voters resented the EU’s interference. 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 called the Nazi regime a “cruel and brutal dictatorship.” With Haider’s official withdrawal, Austrian politics returned to near normality, and Freedom 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 in Carinthia in March, 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. Most of the party’s leadership and most of its 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). The Freedom Party remained in parliament as a rump (though it retains many activists). The BZO became OVP’s junior coalition partner.
In 2006, parliamentary elections confirmed the OVP’s relative decline. The SPO won with 35 percent of the vote and 68 seats, while the OVP took 34 percent and 66 seats. The Green Party secured a surprising third-place tie with the Freedom Party with 21 seats. The BZO took 7 seats. Neither of the large parties was able to form a coalition with any combination of the smaller parties: Schuessel tried to combine with the Greens and either the Freedom Party or the BZO, without success. As a result, talks on renewing the grand coalition continued. However, antagonism between the SPO and the OVP , as a result of the hotly contested vote, made negotiations drag on until the end of the year. One issue was the SPO’s campaign promise to cancel the OVP’s purchase of 18 advanced (and expensive) Eurofighter jets, which the OVP refused. Despite the bad blood, chances of a grand coalition remain.
Austria is an electoral democracy. The lower house of the Federal Parliament, the Nationalrat (National Council), has 183 members chosen at simultaneous district, state, and federal polls 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 62 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. However, 2006 was marked by the collapse of Bawag, a bank owned by a union federation with strong ties to the SPO, with media stories about bad loans, the covering up of losses, and the lavish lifestyles of its executives. Austria was ranked 11 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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.
Nazi and anti-Semitic speech and writing are banned, and in 2005, David Irving, a British historian, was arrested on charges of Holocaust-denial. He was sentenced to three years in prison in February 2006.
Religious freedom is respected in Austria and enshrined in the constitution. There are 13 officially recognized religions, which enjoy the ability to draw on state funds for religious education. Joining the group of state-recognized religions requires a period of 10 years as a “confessional community” with fewer privileges and requires that the religion in question have a membership equaling at least 0.05 percent of Austria’s population. 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 and nongovernmental organizations are able to operate without restrictions. Trade unions have traditionally been powerful. They not only are free to organize and to strike, but have been considered an essential partner in national policy making.
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 toward 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 underrepresented.