Austria | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2010

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The far-right Freedom Party made significant gains in the February 2009 provincial elections, largely at the expense of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO). Austria’s police were criticized for failing to act on warnings of expected violence following the fatal shooting of a Sikh leader in an Austrian mosque in May. Meanwhile, parliament adopted legislation in December permitting civil partnerships for same-sex couples.

Modern Austria emerged after World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke apart. It was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938 until defeat in World War II. Austria remained neutral during the Cold War, focusing instead on economic growth.
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. The 1999 elections produced 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, which won 27 percent of the popular vote. Its support had risen steadily as voters became disaffected with the large parties’ power-sharing arrangement and its barriers to major political change. In 2000, the European Union (EU) briefly suspended ties with Austria in response to the Freedom Party’s inclusion, though perceived EU interference bolstered party support.
Due to the sanctions, the controversial Joerg Haider stepped down as leader of the Freedom Party. Austrian politics returned to near normality thereafter as the party was moderated by the day-to-day realities of governing. After an internal leadership struggle, the party withdrew from the coalition in September 2002. November 2002 parliamentary elections saw the Freedom Party’s share of the vote fall to 10 percent. It rejoined the coalition with the OVP, but as a clear junior partner. Subsequent poor election performances, including European Parliament elections, furthered rifts within the party. Most of its members of parliament, as well as Haider, left the party in spring 2005 to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO). The Freedom Party remained in parliament as a rump, though with many activists. The BZO became OVP’s junior coalition partner.
In October 2006, parliamentary elections confirmed an OVP decline, with the SPO winning by a small margin and the two parties forming another grand coalition. The SPO’s Alfred Gusenbauer became chancellor, but top ministries including foreign affairs and finance went to the OVP, continuing the parties’ 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. 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. Support for the SPO fell to 29 percent, and the OVP’s declined to 26 percent. The BZO and Freedom Party surged to 18 and 11 percent respectively, buoyed by antiforeigner sentiment, skepticism toward the EU, and frustration with the squabbling grand coalition. Both major parties refused coalitions with the far right. Shortly after the vote, Haider was killed in a car accident. In late 2008, the SPO and OVP revived their grand coalition, under Faymann as chancellor with an OVP vice-chancellor.
The February 2009 provincial elections suggested a continued movement towards the right, with the SPO suffering dramatic losses. The OVP retained power in Upper Austria and Vorarlberg, while the Freedom Party nearly doubled its presence in both regions, winning 25 percent of the vote in Vorarlberg as it absorbed support from the much-diminished BZO. However, the OVP again ruled out a coalition with the Freedom Party.
In May, a Sikh religious leader visiting from India was fatally shot by rival Sikhs during a religious service in an Austrian mosque; another 16 people were injured during the attacks and several suspects were arrested. The shootings triggered riots in northern India among supporters of the slain cleric. Meanwhile, Austrian police were accused of failing to act on warnings that a rival Sikh temple had threatened violence if the cleric proceeded with his visit as planned.

Members of the Hapsburg family, which ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, applied to the country’s Constitutional Court in September for an end to a 90-year ban prohibiting them from running for Austria’s largely ceremonial presidency. In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Hapsburgs could proceed with an appeal only after a family member had applied as a candidate and been formally rejected.

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. Members serve five-year terms, extended from four in 2008. 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.
Though Austria has competitive political parties and free and fair elections, the traditional practice of grand coalitions has fostered disillusionment with the political process. Frustration with the cozy relationship between the OVP and the SPO contributed to the rise of the Freedom Party, though its time in government brought it temporarily 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, following tightened campaign donation laws. However, the 2006 collapse of Bawag, a union-owned bank with strong ties to the SPO, led to a flurry of media stories about bad loans, concealed losses, and lavish lifestyles among executives. Austria was ranked 16 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The media are free, though not highly pluralistic. The end of monopoly by the state broadcaster, ORF, has not brought significant competition, and print media ownership is concentrated in a few hands. Harassment and libel lawsuits by politicians—notably from the Freedom Party—against critical journalists have hampered the work of reporters. Austria has lost more press-freedom cases before the European Court of Human Rights than any 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 he was released on probation later that year. During 2008, the Freedom Party campaigned in favor of relaxing some bans on Nazi symbols.
Religious freedom in Austria is respected and constitutionally guaranteed. Thirteen officially recognized religions can draw on state funds for religious education. Obtaining this status requires a membership equaling at least 0.05 percent of Austria’s population and a period of 10 years as a “confessional community” with fewer privileges. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, currently a confessional community, have complained that these rules violate their freedom of religion. The Church of Scientology has third-tier status as an “association.” Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected in the constitution. Civic and nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions. Trade unions, which traditionally have been close to the SPO, are free to organize and strike and are 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 generally meet high European standards, though isolated incidents of police brutality and harsh or crowded 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 world’s highest numbers of asylum seekers per capita. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has criticized the country’s asylum law, which is among the strictest in the developed world. Some asylum seekers can be deported while appeals are pending, and 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, including the workplace. A 1993 law sought to increase women’s employment in government agencies, where they were underrepresented. The June 2009 Second Protection Against Violence Act increases penalties for domestic violence and takes further measures against chronic offenders.

In December 2009, parliament adopted legislation permitting civil partnerships for same-sex couples. The law, which enters into effect in January 2010, provides them with equal rights to pensions and alimony and allows them to take each other’s names, but does not provide them with the same adoption rights as married couples.