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Political corruption scandals continued in Austria in 2012, tainting both the conservative government of the previous decade and the current Social Democratic chancellor, Werner Faymann. A new ethics law was passed in June, but the major parties sought to limit a parliamentary investigation of Faymann on corruption charges. Meanwhile, Austro-Canadian car parts magnate Frank Stronach announced that he was founding a new party and would run for chancellor in the 2013 election.
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. In 2000, the European Union (EU) briefly suspended ties with Austria, imposing diplomatic sanctions in response to the FPÖ’s inclusion in the government. In 2005, most of the FPÖ’s members of the parliament, including its controversial leader, Jörg Haider, left the party to form the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ).
In October 2006, the SPÖ won parliamentary elections by a small margin and formed another grand coalition with the ÖVP. Alfred Gusenbauer of the SPÖ served as chancellor from 2007 through 2008. In the summer of 2008, the ÖVP announced its exit from the coalition amid political battles over health, tax, and pension reforms.
In the 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. Werner Faymann of the SPÖ became chancellor.
February 2009 state elections suggested a continued movement toward the right, with the SPÖ suffering dramatic losses. However, the ÖVP again ruled out a coalition with the FPÖ.
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 logged its worst-ever result in Vienna with only 13.2 percent.
In September 2012, Austrian-born Canadian car-parts magnate Frank Stronach, an 80-year-old billionaire, announced that he was forming an Austrian political party, called Team Stronach, and would be a candidate for chancellor in the 2013 general election. In November, Team Stronach was allowed to take its first seats in the parliament when five sitting members of a small right-wing opposition party defected to join the new party.
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.
Recent corruption scandals have damaged the reputation of Austria’s political class. According to a Eurobarometer poll conducted in September 2011 and released in February 2012, 80 percent of Austrians said they believed corruption was a major problem, up from 61 percent in 2009—the largest such increase for any European country. The scandals led the parliament to pass an ethics reform bill in June 2012, tightening disclosure rules for political contributions and gifts. Prosecutors in August indicted former Interior Minister Ernst Strasser on corruption charges. Strasser had resigned his seat in the European Parliament in 2011 after accepting a bribe offered by British reporters posing as lobbyists. Gabriela Moser, the head of a parliamentary committee investigating alleged corruption involving Chancellor Werner Faymann, resigned in September 2012, asserting that opposition from the SPÖ and ÖVP was limiting her effectiveness. According to the allegations, Faymann, in his previous post as transportation minister, pressured the state railroad and highway agency to pay for advertisements favorable to him. Prosecutors in October brought the first indictments in a wide-ranging fraud and corruption case concerning Telekom Austria, which included the alleged bribery of lobbyists and politicians such as former vice chancellor Hubert Gorbach. Austria was ranked 25 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 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, in recent 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, including the February 2011 conviction of lecturer Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff for denigrating Islamic teachings during an FPÖ-sanctioned seminar.
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. However, in July 2012, the government and Muslim groups celebrated the centenary of Austria’s Law on Islam, which assured Muslims of “the same legal protection as is granted to other legally recognized religious communities.” There are no government restrictions on academic freedom.
Freedoms of assembly and association are protected in the constitution and in practice. Nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions. Trade unions are free to organize and to 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. 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.