Austria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2009

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In the summer of 2008, the short-lived coalition government of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO) and the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) ended amid tension, and new elections were held in September. Two far-right parties performed well, together taking just under 30 percent of the vote. The leader of one, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, was killed in an automobile accident days after the elections. The SPO and OVP revived their grand coalition under the leadership of the SPO’s Werner Faymann, leaving the far right out of government.

Modern Austria emerged at the end of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke apart. It was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938 and suffered defeat in World War II. By the consent of both sides, Austria remained neutral during the Cold War, focusing instead on economic growth and developing 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 and in many other government functions. Labor relations were corporatist, with management and unions both represented not only in the decision making of individual firms but also in national policymaking.

The 1999 elections produced the first government since 1970 that did not 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 risen steadily in the polls as voters became disaffected with the power-sharing arrangement of the large parties and the near impossibility of major political change. The Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in 1999 and was thus included in a coalition led by the OVP. The reaction among fellow members of the European Union (EU) was dramatic. In 2000, the EU officially suspended ties with Austria. Support in Austria for the Freedom Party jumped, as voters resented the EU’s interference. Later in 2000, the EU reinstated the country.

Due to the sanctions, the controversial Joerg Haider (who once referred to the Nazi death camps as “punishment camps”) stepped down as leader of the Freedom Party, though he remained governor of Carinthia. With his withdrawal, Austrian politics returned to near normality, as the Freedom Party was moderated by the day-to-day reality of governing. After an internal leadership struggle, the party withdrew from the coalition in September 2002. The parliamentary elections of November 2002 saw the Freedom Party’s share of the vote fall to 10 percent. It rejoined the coalition with the OVP, but this time clearly as the junior partner.

Subsequent poor election performances (for example in European Parliament elections) fueled internal rifts in the party. 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 retained many activists. The BZO became OVP’s junior coalition partner.

In October 2006, parliamentary elections confirmed the OVP’s relative decline, with the SPO winning by a small margin. Since all the other parties were too small to form a viable coalition, the SPO once again joined a grand coalition with the OVP under Alfred Gusenbauer of the SPO as chancellor. Top ministries, including foreign affairs and finance, went to the OVP, however. As a result, the parties continued to struggle for dominance within the government. The SPO’s investigation into the previous OVP government’s purchase of 18 Eurofighter jets antagonized its coalition partner. The two also struggled over health, tax, and pension reforms as well as policy toward the EU, which was increasingly unpopular in Austria. In the summer of 2008, the OVP announced its exit from the coalition.

New elections were held in September, with Werner Faymann leading the SPO. The two big parties both suffered losses; the SPO fell to 29 percent and the OVP dropped to 26 percent. The BZO and Freedom Party, meanwhile, surged to 18 and 11 percent respectively, buoyed by antiforeigner sentiment, skepticism toward the EU, and frustration with the squabbling grand coalition. However, both big parties promised not to form a coalition with the two far-right parties. Moreover, shortly after the vote, Haider, the BZO leader, was killed in a car accident. In late 2008, the SPO and OVP revived their grand coalition, under Faymann as an SPO chancellor with an OVP vice-chancellor.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Austria is an electoral democracy. The lower house of the Federal Assembly, the Nationalrat (National Council), has 183 members chosen through proportional representation at the district, state, and federal levels to ensure both overall fairness and a voice for each region. Members of the Nationalrat served four-year terms, extended to five as of the 2008 elections. The chancellor, appointed by the president, needs the support of the legislature to govern. The 62 members of the upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), are chosen by state legislatures. In 2008 the voting age was lowered to 16.

Perhaps ironically, the participation of the Freedom Party in government highlighted the country’s basic democratic rights in 2000, when other European countries tried unsuccessfully 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 caused substantial disillusionment with the political process. Frustration with the cozy relationship between the OVP and the SPO contributed to the rise of the Freedom Party, but the party’s participation in government brought it for a time closer to the mainstream right. Minority participation in government remains frustrated despite the high number of foreigners in Austria.

Austria is now less corrupt than it was during the 1980s, when campaign donation laws were tightened somewhat. However, the 2006 collapse of Bawag, a bank owned by a union federation with strong ties to the SPO, led to a flurry of media stories about bad loans, the covering up of financial losses, and the lavish lifestyles of the bank’s executives. Austria was ranked 12 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 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. Austria has lost more press-freedom cases before the European Court of Human Rights than any other country but Turkey. 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, but was released on probation in December of that year. During 2008 the Freedom Party campaigned in favor of relaxing some of the bans on Nazi symbols, but the party was excluded from the government that formed later in the year.

Religious freedom is respected in Austria and enshrined in the constitution. There are 13 officially recognized religions, which can draw on state funds for religious education. Recognition by the state first requires a period of 10 years as a “confessional community” with fewer privileges, and the religion in question must have a membership equaling at least 0.05 percent of Austria’s population. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have complained that these rules violate their freedom of religion, although they are recognized as a “confessional community” along with other smaller faiths. The Church of Scientology is allowed only a third-tier status, as an “association.” Academic freedom is 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 and are close to the SPO. Not only are they free to organize and strike, but they have been considered an essential partner in national policymaking.

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 incidents 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; Austria has one of the highest numbers of asylum seekers per capita in the world. The asylum law was tightened in December 2003, placing it among the strictest in the developed world and drawing criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It allows some asylum seekers to be deported while appeals of their cases are pending. New arrivals are 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's freedom from discrimination in various areas, especially the workplace. A 1993 law sought to increase women’s employment in government agencies, where they were underrepresented.