Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Austria has a democratic system of government that guarantees political rights and civil liberties. It has frequently been governed by a grand coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), and the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). However, in recent years, the political system has faced pressure from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a right-wing, populist party that openly entertains nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. The FPÖ entered the Austrian government in coalition with the ÖVP in 2017.
Key Developments in 2017:
- Austria held early elections in October, following the collapse of the governing coalition between the SPÖ and ÖVP in May. The ÖVP won a plurality of seats in the elections, and formed a coalition government with the right-wing, populist FPÖ.
- In January, Austria introduced a ban on full-face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, which came into effect in October.
- Major parties were unable to agree on certain provisions of a proposed freedom of information law, and the policy of official secrecy remained in the constitution at the end of the year.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 37 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Executive elections in Austria are generally free and fair. The president is elected for a six-year term and has predominantly ceremonial duties. The president does, however, appoint the chancellor, who also needs the support of the legislature to govern. Austria’s current president is the former head of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, who was elected president after a close and controversial poll that featured a repeat of the run-off between Van der Bellen and FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer. The run-off was repeated after the Constitutional Court established that there had been problems with the handling of postal ballots.
Following the 2017 elections to the National Council (Nationalrat), the lower house of parliament, ÖVP head Sebastian Kurz became chancellor with support of the right-wing, populist FPÖ.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Legislative elections in Austria are generally free and fair. The National Council has 183 members chosen through proportional representation at the district, state, and federal levels. Members serve five-year terms. The 62 members of the upper house, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), are chosen by state legislatures for five- or six-year terms.
Snap elections to the National Council took place in October 2017, one year early, following the collapse of the coalition between the SPÖ and the ÖVP in May. Animosities between the two former coalition partners were reflected in an antagonistic, heavily-fought election campaign. Migration and asylum issues were particularly prominent. ÖVP leader Kurz became a proponent of some of the restrictive policies supported by the right-wing, populist FPÖ, reflecting a rightward shift in Austrian politics.
The ÖVP took 62 mandates—the most of any party but not enough for a governing majority. The SPÖ received 52 mandates, and the FPÖ took 51; the remaining votes were split between smaller parties. Voter turnout was around 80 percent.
The ÖVP formed a coalition government with the FPÖ in December. The formation of the coalition made Austria the only western European country to have a far-right party included in the government. President Van der Bellen approved the coalition and Kurz became chancellor that same month.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Austria’s electoral laws and framework are fair and generally implemented impartially by the relevant bodies.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Austria has competitive political parties that form and operate without encountering undue obstacles. Recent years have seen the rise and fall of various competing parties and coalitions through democratic processes. The Green Party lost its seats in the National Council after failing to meet the 4 percent voting threshold in the 2017 elections, while the recently formed Pilz List entered the chamber for the first time.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Opposition parties have a realistic opportunity to gain representation. Austria has frequently been governed by grand coalitions, a trend that has fostered some public disillusionment with the political process. The SPÖ had formed a grand coalition with the ÖVP in 2013 after winning a plurality of seats in that year’s elections. However, following the 2017 polls, the SPÖ was pushed into opposition after the best-performing ÖVP entered a coalition with the FPÖ.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
Austrians are generally free to make their own political choices without pressure from the military, business leaders, or other groups that are not democratically accountable.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The participation of Slovene, Hungarian, and Roma minorities in local government remains limited. There is little minority representation in legislature. The number of people who have been naturalized (thus gaining certain political rights) has fallen dramatically since the establishment of a more restrictive national integration policy in 2009.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 10 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
The freely elected president and legislative representatives work with the chancellor, vice chancellor, and cabinet ministers to determine the policies of the government.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 3 / 4
Austria has some problems with public-sector corruption, and the political class is perceived by many as corrupt. In what was considered one of the most significant corruption cases in recent years, the trial of former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser opened in December 2017; he is charged with bribery and embezzlement in connection with the sale of state housing in 2004. Separately, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) criticized Austria in February for weak party finance legislation, and for failing to adequately regulate lobbying and prevent corruption amongst parliamentarians.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4
Austria’s government has frequently been criticized for lacking transparency. Official secrecy remains enshrined in the constitution. For over four years, a draft freedom of information law has been stuck in parliamentary procedures, and it again stalled in June 2017 when parties could not reach an agreement over certain aspects of its provisions. Austria’s overall legal framework on access to information—containing vague criteria for compliance and lacking a strong appeals mechanism—is among the weakest in the world.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 57 / 60 (–1)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16 (–1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
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, many of whom—particularly members of the FPÖ—have filed defamation suits in recent years. Media ownership remains highly concentrated, particularly in the provinces. The government exerts some influence on the state broadcaster, the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). In December 2017, Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of the FPÖ and vice-chancellor, claimed that the ORF needed an “optimization” of its objectivity, prompting concern among media freedom advocates.
Before the October 2017 elections, then chancellor Christian Kern was heavily criticized for his decision to not place any campaign ads in or give interviews to the tabloid-style newspaper Österreich, which had mocked him ahead of the election, a step seen by some as an attack on press freedom. 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. There are no restrictions on internet access.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4 (–1)
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 allege that the law impedes their legitimate claims for recognition, and demotes them to second- or third-class status.
Foreign funding for Muslim houses of worship and imams is prohibited by a 2015 law; Orthodox Christian and Jewish groups with similarly strong links to communities abroad face no such restrictions. The FPÖ has been accused of anti-Semitic rhetoric in recent years, and more recently has been criticized for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment through controversial advertising campaigns. Some Muslims in Austria have told journalists that they feel the need to keep a low profile following the formation of the new ÖVP-FPÖ government.
In January 2017, Austria passed a ban on full-face coverings, which was generally interpreted as targeting women who wear burqas and niqabs—even though very few women in Austria wear those garments. The law, which came into effect in October, was met with derision by opponents who pointed out that it also criminalized clown makeup, animal masks, and, under certain circumstances, scarves.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to increasingly unequal treatment of religious groups under the law, as reflected in a ban on foreign funding for Muslim houses of worship, and a 2017 law banning the face veil.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is generally upheld, and the educational system is free from extensive political indoctrination.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion in Austria is generally free and unrestricted. However, there have been some difficulties related to the balance between ensuring freedom of speech, and enforcing legal prohibitions on hate speech.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is protected in the constitution and in practice. However, the opposition SPÖ criticized the heavy police presence and tactics at antigovernment protests in December 2017.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate without restrictions. In March 2017, then foreign minister Sebastian Kurz strongly attacked international and other NGOs that aid migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean, accusing them of supporting human trafficking.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
Trade unions are free to organize and to strike, and they are considered an essential partner in national policymaking. Around 25 percent of Austrian employees are unionized, according to 2014 figures.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
The judiciary is independent, and the Constitutional Court examines the compatibility of legislation with the constitution without political influence or interference.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
Due process generally prevails in civil and criminal matter.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
People in Austria are generally free from the illegitimate use of physical force, war, and insurgencies. However, terrorist threats are a concern. In January 2017, the Austrian police arrested an 18-year-old citizen who allegedly had planned a terror attack in Vienna.
Conditions in prisons generally meet high European standards.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Some marginalized groups face difficulty exercising their human rights before the law. Strong rhetoric has been directed against refugees and migrants in recent years. Some asylum seekers can be deported while appeals are pending. The new Austrian government announced plans to tighten asylum policies in December 2017; the proposed reforms would include benefit cuts for refugees throughout Austria, and would require that refuges and migrants turn over their cash and phones when applying for asylum. Earlier, in August 2017, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had condemned “xenophobic debates” taking place in the lead-up to the October elections.
LGBT (lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual) people face some societal discrimination. Hate crime legislation prohibits incitement based on sexual orientation. However, no law prohibits service providers from denying services on that basis.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Austrian citizens enjoy freedom of movement and choice of residence. 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 instruction and job training.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
Austrians may freely exercise the right to own property and establish businesses.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
In December 2017, Austria’s Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex marriage will be legal starting in 2019, overturning the 2009 law that permitted civil partnerships for same-sex couples; the court ruled that the civil partnership law was not consistent with the constitutional prohibition against discrimination. Since 2016, there are no longer restrictions on same-sex couples adopting children.
The 2009 Second Protection against Violence Act increased penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence, and authorized further punitive measures against chronic offenders.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
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. According to the U.S. State Department 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, Austria remains “a destination and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor,” but the government is making efforts to fight human trafficking; convictions and prosecutions for trafficking-related offenses have increased, and the government makes efforts at identifying victims among refugee and migrant populations.