Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 8,200,000
GNI/Capita: $23,940
Life Expectancy: 79
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (78 percent), Protestant (5 percent), other [including Muslim] (17 percent)
Ethnic Groups: German (88 percent), non-nations [includes Croats, Slovenes, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Roma] (9.3 percent), non-nations [includes those who have lived in austria at least three generations] (2 percent)
Capital: Vienna


While the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in government since 2000 has caused an international stir, it has also blunted the protest appeal of this formerly radical party. In 2003, Austria returned to focusing on basic socioeconomic issues, such as privatization and pension reform. In a move criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Austria tightened asylum laws in 2003.

Modern Austria emerged at the end of World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered. It was voluntarily annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938 and suffered the defeat of Hitler's regime. Postwar Austria, by consent of the superpower Allies, remained neutral between the Cold War blocs. Focusing instead on economic growth, Austria has developed one of the wealthiest economies in Europe.

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. Members of the two parties shared in the administration of not only cabinet ministries, but also many other government functions. Labor relations were corporatist, with management and unions both represented not only in individual firms' decision making, but also in national policymaking.

The election of October 1999 saw the emergence of the first government since 1970 not to include the Social Democrats. Instead, the People's Party formed a coalition with the Freedom Party, a far-right nationalist party with vestigial Nazi sympathies. The Freedom Party had grown steadily in the polls as voters became disaffected with the power sharing of the two big parties and the near impossibility of major political change. The Freedom Party won its biggest ever share of the vote, 27 percent, in that election, and was thus included in a coalition with the People's Party's Wolfgang Schuessel as chancellor.

The reaction among fellow members of the European Union (EU) was immediate and dramatic. In 2000, the EU officially suspended ties with Austria. Though this had little practical effect, technically it meant that the other 14 EU countries had to deal with Austria on a bilateral basis rather than through the EU. It also saw support for the Freedom Party shoot up, as Austrian voters resented the EU's attempts to interfere with the choice Austrians had expressed at the polls. Later in 2000, however, the EU reinstated Austria.

One effect of the EU sanctions was that Joerg Haider, the Freedom Party's leader, withdrew from that post and contented himself with the governorship of the state of Carinthia. Haider had been both Freedom's biggest vote-winner and the source of its major controversies. For example, he referred to Nazi death camps as "punishment camps" and once told a rally of former SS officers that they were worth "honor and respect," though he also referred to the Nazi regime as a "cruel and brutal dictatorship." With Haider's official withdrawal from national politics, Austrian politics returned to near-normality and Freedom was forced to moderate its far-right stances as it dealt with the day-to-day reality of governing.

However, Haider could not remain absent from the national stage for long, and he continually tried to pull strings with the national Freedom leaders, including Susanne Riess-Passer, the vice chancellor and formal Freedom Party leader. Internal Freedom Party wrangling caused the party to withdraw from the coalition in September 2002. The elections of November 2002 saw the Freedom Party's vote share fall from 27 percent in 1999 to 10 percent. In subsequent cabinet negotiations, the People's Party failed to reach an agreement with the Social Democrats to restore the grand coalition, and similarly failed with the Greens. Thus, the Freedom Party was once again included, but this time as the clearly junior partner, and subsequent local election results in 2003 confirmed its decline in the polls.

The second term under Schuessel has seen the united right government tackle several sensitive questions of political economy, including pensions and privatization. Despite massive – and, for Austria, highly unusual – protest strikes in May, a pension reform was pushed through in June that capped benefits from the costly pay-as-you-go system. The privatization of the Voestalpine steel works also caused some nationalist backlash, with a rumored sale to a Canadian company prompting the finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, to insist that Voestalpine would remain in Austrian hands. Proposed reforms of the federal rail system have also drawn threats of strikes from the labor unions.

In October 2003, the government tightened asylum laws. Austria has the highest number of asylum seekers per capita in Europe, and the asylum issue had been a vote winner for the Freedom Party. Under the new law, criticized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, some asylum seekers could be deported while appeals of their cases are held. New arrivals will be asked for full statements within 72 hours. The government insists that it is merely trying to speed up the process and that 85 percent of those who come are actually economic migrants.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Austrians can change their government democratically. Perhaps ironically, the participation of the Freedom Party in government emphasized this basic right when other European countries tried in 2000 to induce Austrians to forgo their democratic choice.

Though there are competitive political parties and free and fair elections, the traditional practice of grand coalitions in Austria has disillusioned many with the political process. Frustration with the cozy relationship between the People's Party and the Social Democrats helped lead to the rise of the Freedom Party as a protest party. However, Austria is less corrupt than during the 1980s, when campaign donation laws were tightened somewhat.

The media are free, though not highly pluralistic. The end of the monopoly of the state broadcaster ORF has not brought significant competition to the broadcast market, and print media ownership is concentrated in a few hands, particularly the News and the Print-Medien groups. Harassment suits by the Freedom Party against investigative and critical journalists have hampered reporters' work.

Religious freedom is respected in Austria and enshrined in the constitution. However, there are only 12 officially recognized religions, and these have the ability to draw on state funds for religious education. The process of joining that group requires a period of ten years of observation, a practice that the Jehovah's Witnesses have complained violates their freedom of religion. However, the Witnesses are recognized as a "confessional community." Academic freedom is generally respected.

Freedoms of assembly and association are protected in the constitution, and trade unions have traditionally been powerful. They not only are free to organize and strike, but have been considered an essential partner in national policy making. Strikes held in May 2003 against the government's controversial pension reforms did not stop those reforms from going through.

The judiciary is independent, and a 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.

Demonstrators protested in July after a man from Mauritania was killed in a disturbance at an exhibition of African culture. Generally speaking, residents are afforded equal protection under the law. However, immigration has fueled some resentment toward minorities and foreigners, and asylum laws are among the tightest in the developed world.

A 1979 law guarantees women freedom from discrimination in various areas, especially the workplace. A 1993 law sought to increase women's employment in government agencies where women were underrepresented.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.