Austria | Freedom House

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In 2011, Austria saw a number of high-profile court cases centering on the balance between freedom of speech and hate speech, including one case involving a person convicted of denigration of religious teachings for statements made during a seminar on Islam. In June, the parliament repealed a constitutional provision that had denied the right of members of the Habsburg family to run for Austria’s presidency. Meanwhile, Austria was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in May.

Modern Austria, which emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938 before being restored to independence after World War II. The country remained neutral during the Cold War and joined the European Union in 1995.

From 1986 until 2000, the two largest political parties—the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP)—governed together in a grand coalition. The 1999 elections produced the first government since 1970 that did not include the SPÖ. Instead, the ÖVP formed a coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a far-right nationalist party that won 27 percent of the popular vote. Its support had risen steadily as voters became disaffected with the large parties’ power-sharing arrangement. In 2000, the European Union (EU) briefly suspended ties with Austria, imposing diplomatic sanctions in response to the FPÖ’s inclusion in government.

Due to the sanctions, the controversial Jörg Haider stepped down as FPÖ leader at the end of 2000, and the FPÖ withdrew from the coalition in September 2002 after an internal leadership struggle. Parliamentary elections that November saw the FPÖ’s share of the vote fall to 10 percent. It rejoined the coalition with the ÖVP, but as a junior partner. Subsequent poor election performances widened rifts within the party. Most of its members of parliament, as well as Haider, left in 2005 to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ).

In October 2006, parliamentary elections confirmed an ÖVP decline, with the SPÖ winning by a small margin and the two parties forming another grand coalition. In the summer of 2008, the ÖVP announced its exit from the coalition amid political battles over health, tax, and pension reforms, as well as policy toward the EU.

In September 2008 elections, the SPÖ and ÖVP lost ground to the BZÖ and FPÖ, which were buoyed by xenophobic sentiment and deep skepticism toward the EU. However, both the SPÖ and the ÖVP refused to form a coalition with the far right, and in late 2008 they agreed to revive their alliance.

The February 2009 state elections suggested a continued movement toward the right, with the SPÖ suffering dramatic losses. The ÖVP retained power in Upper Austria and Vorarlberg, but the FPÖ nearly doubled its presence in both regions as it absorbed support from the much-diminished BZÖ. However, the ÖVP again ruled out a coalition with the FPÖ.

Incumbent Heinz Fischer of the SPÖ won a second term as president in an April 2010 election. He took around 80 percent of the vote, defeating FPÖ candidate Barbara Rosenkranz and Christian Party of Austria (CPÖ) candidate Rudolf Gehring, with some 16 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively.

In October 2010 state elections in Vienna, the SPÖ lost its absolute majority in the legislature for only the second time since World War II, though it still led with 44.2 percent of the vote. The FPÖ placed second with 27 percent, while the ÖVP faced its worst-ever result in Vienna with only 13.2 percent. However, the FPÖ did not achieve equal gains in the Burgenland and Styria state elections, which have small foreign-born and ethnic minority populations.

In 2009, Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen, whose family ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, lobbied the Austrian Constitutional Court to end a ban prohibiting members of his family­ from running for Austria’s presidency. After both his request and his presidential candidacy were denied, the Habsburg family filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in October 2010 claiming that the ban violated their right to participate in democratic elections. In June 2011, the Austrian parliament formally repealed the constitutional provision.

In May 2011, Austria was elected as a new member of the UN Human Rights Council.  As part of its candidature, the government made a series of pledges and commitments to promote and protect the rule of law and human rights, including increasing protections for religious minorities and members of the press, and advancing children’s rights.

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 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 Bundesrat (Federal Council), are chosen by state legislatures for five- or six-year terms.

Though Austria has competitive political parties and free and fair elections, the traditional practice of grand coalitions has fostered disillusionment with 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.

Tightened campaign donation laws have reduced political corruption in recent decades. While Austria ratified the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1999, concerns were raised around a 2009 amendment to Austria’s anti-corruption legislation, which could weaken its laws against bribery of foreign public officials. Nonetheless, Austria was ranked 16 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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, and a large number of defamation cases have been brought by public officials, particularly from the FPÖ, over the last 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. However, the far-right FPÖ has been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years. Additionally, the FPÖ has been criticized for fueling anti-Muslim feelings in Austria through controversial ad campaigns. A number of recent high-profile court cases have centered on the balance between freedom of speech and hate-speech. In February 2011, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff was found guilty of “denigration of religious teachings of a legally recognized religion” for statements made in a seminar she delivered on Islam for the FPÖ and fined up to €480 (US$656). Her conviction was upheld in a higher court in December. Austria rejected the recommendations made in January 2011 by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council to develop a National Action Plan on Racism and Xenophobia and to collect and generate disaggregated data on manifestations of racism and discrimination.

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. There are no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

Freedoms of assembly and association are protected in the constitution and in practice. Civic and nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions. Trade unions are free to organize and strike, and they 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. The quality of prisons generally meets high European standards.

Residents are usually 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, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has criticized Austria’s strict asylum law. 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.

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. A 2009 law permits civil partnerships for same-sex couples, giving them equal rights to pension benefits and alimony. However, it does not provide same-sex couples with the same adoption rights as heterosexual couples or equal access to assisted reproductive technologies. By the end of 2011, women comprised 28 percent of the lower house and 31 percent of the upper house.