Freedom in the World
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
In a September 29, 2013, general election, the two largest Austrian political parties—Chancellor Werner Faymann’s center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the center-right People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP)—narrowly won a combined majority in the lower house of parliament. That allowed them to continue governing in a grand coalition, as they had done since 2008, and for most years since 1986. However, their vote shares slipped after both parties were implicated in a rash of corruption scandals. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a far-right nationalist party, won more than 20 percent of the vote, up significantly from the previous election in 2008.
Political Rights: 38 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
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.
In the September election the SPÖ won 52 seats in the Nationalrat, and the ÖVP took 47. Their combined vote share of 50.9 percent, down from 78.8 percent in 2002, was their worst since World War II, and their combined number of seats fell from 108. Both parties were weakened by corruption scandals and by their pro-European Union (EU) policies; Austria, which has the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, is nevertheless experiencing rising public discontent with bailouts for other members of the Eurozone.
The FPÖ took 40 seats, up 6 from the previous election. Team Stronach for Austria, a new euroskeptic, pro-business party founded in 2012 by Austrian-born Canadian car-parts magnate Frank Stronach, performed worse than expected, garnering 5.7 percent of the vote, for 11 seats. After briefly exploring the possibility of a conservative coalition with the FPÖ and Team Stronach, the ÖVP backed away from that option. (In 2000, the EU briefly suspended ties with Austria, imposing diplomatic sanctions in response to the inclusion of the far-right, xenophobic FPÖ in an ÖVP-led coalition government.) In December, SPÖ and the ÖVP reached an agreement to continue governing as a grand coalition. The Austrian Green Party won 12.3 percent of the vote, for 24 seats. The far-right Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), which had split from the FPÖ in 2005 and was considered less extreme, failed to win any seats, falling short of the 4 percent threshold necessary for inclusion in the Nationalrat. Another new party, the centrist, pro-business New Austria (NEOS), won nine seats. Voter turnout was about 75 percent.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 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. 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. There is little minority representation in the Federal Assembly. After the 2013 elections the Nationalrat included one Muslim man and three Turkish-born Muslim women.
C. Functioning of Government: 11 / 12
Recent corruption scandals have damaged the reputation of Austria’s political class. In January 2013, former interior minister Ernst Strasser was sentenced to four years in prison for bribery. Strasser had resigned his seat in the European Parliament in 2011 after accepting a bribe offered by British reporters posing as lobbyists. Also in January, the Green Party released a report on a parliamentary corruption investigation, estimating that corruption reduced the nation’s economic output by about 5 percent, or €17 billion ($22 billion), in 2012. In June, Wolfgang Duchatczek, deputy governor of the Austrian central bank, was one of a group of nine people charged in connection with bribes allegedly paid to win contracts to supply banknotes to Azerbaijan and Syria. Rudolf Fischer, a former deputy chief executive of Telekom Austria—which had been linked to a number of corruption scandals—in August was convicted of diverting funds to the FPÖ, and received a three-year prison sentence, all but six months of which was suspended.
In June 2012, ongoing corruption scandals led the parliament to pass an ethics reform bill that tightened disclosure rules for political contributions and gifts. Later that year, Gabriela Moser, the head of a parliamentary committee investigating alleged corruption involving Faymann, resigned, asserting that opposition from the SPÖ and the ÖVP was limiting her effectiveness. Austria was ranked 26 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 58 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 16 / 16
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 FPÖ has been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years. In January 2013, a court sentenced a prominent neo-Nazi figure, Gottfried Kuessel, to nine years in prison for helping start a website to disseminate Nazi views. Two other defendants in the case also received prison sentences. The website had been shut down by authorities in 2011.
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 the prohibition of 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. There are no government restrictions on academic freedom.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
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. Some 40,000 civil servants demonstrated in Vienna in December 2013 against the government’s handling of pay negotiations.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
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. In January 2013, the government rejected demands for easing its asylum rules by about 40 mostly Pakistani and Afghan refugees who had been holding a hunger strike in a Vienna church.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
Roma and other ethnic minorities face discrimination in the labor and housing markets. The labor ministry has sought to promote integration of younger immigrants by providing German-language and job training.
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. Women made up 33 percent of the Nationalrat after the 2013 elections.
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. In February 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Austrian law discriminated against unmarried same-sex couples by not allowing the biological children of one of the partners to be adopted by the other partner. In July, the Austrian parliament approved an amendment to the civil code to allow such adoptions. But it rejected a bill that would grant gay couples unrestricted adoption rights.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year