Home Living in Austria Government & Law The Austrian government and political system
Last update on April 26, 2021
Alicia Walker Written by Alicia Walker

From the main political parties and electoral system to the judiciary system and economy, we explain the Austrian government and political system.

When you are considering moving to another country, it is important to know how the government and political system in that country works. It is also a good idea to grasp an understanding of the crime and legal system as well as human and civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQI rights. After all, these may be determining factors when it comes to deciding whether or not to move there at all.

To help you learn the basics of the Austrian government and political system, this handy guide outlines the following information:

Government and political system in Austria

Austria is a democratic republic. The territory of the Federal Republic consists of nine federal states, and Vienna is the federal capital. Since 1995, Austria has also been a member state of the European Union. The Austrian constitution allows for popular initiatives (Volksbegehren), by which 200,000 vote-eligible citizens or half the populations of three states can petition parliament for approval of any bill. Furthermore, this can be initiated by a majority of the National Council.

Austrian parliament building
The Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna

Austria’s current government is a first for the nation with a Conservative-Green coalition, which caters to the people while also combatting serious issues like climate change. Interestingly, neighboring countries in the EU are watching closely as a possible model for their nations. Essentially, all elections in Austria promise an equal, direct, free, secret, personal, and universal right to vote. Austria sits high, at number 16, on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Democracy Index.

The Austrian president: who is currently in power in Austria?

Dr. Alexander Van der Bellen is currently Federal President of the Republic of Austria (Bundespräsident) and head of state. He was inaugurated in 2017 and will serve for a term of six years. He also represents the first time a former Green Party leader has ever been elected to the presidency. The president is elected by the people of Austria.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

In 2020, the Austrian Federal Government was formed by the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) and the ecologist Green Party. Again, the new Government is helmed by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who also headed the government from 2017 to 2019. He is also the youngest chief executive of the EU member states. The Green Party head Werner Kogler is Vice-Chancellor. This is the first time there has been a Conservative-Green coalition government in Austria. For the first time in Austrian history, women are also a majority among cabinet ministers.

The main Austrian political parties

There are currently five main political parties in the Austrian Parliament and below is an overview of each one.

The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP)

The ÖVP is the follow-on to the Christian Social Party that began in the 1890s. It represents a combination of conservative forces along with a mix of social and economic groups that form semi-independent federations within the party. These include workers, farmers, employers, tradespeople, feminists, and senior citizens. The opposing interests within these disparate groups make for evident difficulty within the party on a regular basis.

Since May 2017, the party has been led by Sebastian Kurz. Since taking control of the party, the Austrian chancellor has taken on many of the ideals of its former coalition partner, The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), adding many anti-immigration policies to its platform.

Currently, it is the largest party in the National Council. It holds 71 of the 183 seats, and won 37.5% of votes cast in the 2019 legislative election.

The Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ)

Originally, the SPÖ was founded in 1945. Since then, the party has gone through an evolution from a democratic Marxist doctrine to a less ideological approach. The correction of social problems, a socially-oriented economy, employment for all, and an increase in the standard of living are all priorities. It has also expanded its appeal outside the realm of the working class to include the middle classes. It also has a pro-European stance. Along with the ÖVP, it is one of the two major political parties in Austria.

SPÖ headquarters in Vienna
Headquarter of the SPÖ in Vienna, with face of Pamela Rendi-Wagner

Since 2018, Pamela Rendi-Wagner has been at the head of the party which holds 40 of the 183 seats. Additionally, the SPÖ won 21.2% of the votes in the 2019 legislative election.

The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ)

The FPÖ has been around since 1955 as a successor to the League of Independents which has close associations with the Nazis. Later, in the 1980s, it made up a coalition government with the SPÖ after largely changing its ideological principles. Then, in the late 1980s, the party went back to its roots under party leader Jörg Haider and found widespread electoral success with anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Although Haider has since died, the FPÖ continues as a controversial, yet still influential, force.

Norbert Hofer has led the party since 2019. It is the third-largest of five parties in the National Council, with 30 of the 183 seats. Additionally, it won 16.2% of the votes in the 2019 election.

The Greens

Collectively known as the Greens, the two environmentalist parties of Austria banded together to win their first seats in 1986. Along with ecological issues, the Greens platform for direct democracy, feminism, LGBTQ+, and other minority rights, and non-violence. The new government coalition with the ÖVP is, therefore, an uneasy alliance with its developing anti-immigration policies.

The new coalition is the first time the Greens will enter politics on a national level, after being shut out of parliament in 2017. The Greens won 13.9% of the votes and 26 seats in the 2019 election.

The NEOS

Initially starting out in 2012, The New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) is a Liberal party in Austria. It is also the smallest party in the National Council. Currently, the NEOS leader is Beate Meinl-Reisinger and the party holds 15 seats, winning 8.3% of the votes in the 2019 legislative election.

The electoral system in Austria

The Austrian Parliament is the bicameral federal legislature of the Austrian Republic. It holds the National Council with 183 members and the Federal Council with 61 members.

The coat of arms of Austria
The coat of arms of Austria at the Austrian Federal Chancellery in Vienna

Essentially, the National Council holds elections every five years through open party lists. Additionally, there are nine multi-member constituencies that represent each of the nine states. There are also 39 local electoral districts. The Federal Council holds elections through provincial assemblies and its powers have large limitations.

Voting in Austria

Currently, the voting age in Austria is 16. Generally, you must be an Austrian citizen to vote. However, in European elections and municipal elections, citizens of EU member states may also vote.

Essentially, Austria has among the highest proportions of foreign residents in the European Union. However, almost a third of the residents of Vienna are unable to vote outside of their local district elections because they are foreigners. Recently, protests and criticism have highlighted the situation.

In Austria, you don’t need to apply for registration to vote. All citizens with a permanent residence in the country are kept in a permanent municipal register. Currently, it is not compulsory to vote. All elections follow the principles of a universal, equal, direct, free, secret, and personal right to vote.

Political representation in Austria

Essentially, all Austrian citizens who turn 18 on election day have the right to be elected with a passive voting right. An Austrian citizen will only lose this right if they were convicted of a criminal offense exceeding one year of imprisonment. Interestingly, EU expats can represent Austria as a member of the European Parliament. They can even found a new party. However, only an Austrian citizen may run for office on that party’s platform.

Voter placing a ballot inside of a ballot box

In essence, regional authorities rely on a number of bodies to complete their tasks. In Austria, the municipal council offices and city administrations consist of political representatives elected for a term of office. Elections are built on proportional representation, a closed list system, and preferential votes. All groups campaigning need supportive signatures by three members of the National Council; or 2,600 declarations of support in order to run nationwide for national parliamentary elections.

Austrian citizens elect the National Assembly every five years, the Provincial Parliament every five or six years, and the Municipal Council every five or six years. Additionally, they elect the Austrian Members of the European Parliament, and the Federal President, every six years.

The political history of Austria

The government in Austria has been a stable model of democracy since 1945 when it was deemed as the Second Republic. Austria’s commitment to neutrality post-war was also solidified in a pledge in 1955 to never join a military alliance or allow foreign troops into the country.

United Nations Office at Vienna
The United Nations Office at Vienna

Austria has regularly participated in United Nations peacekeeping missions thereafter.

Post-WWII

After World War II, the Austrian government has consisted of periodic coalitions that have ruled the country together. From 1945 to 1966, the two major parties (the ÖVP and the SPÖ) ruled. The SPÖ changed its name in 1991 from the Socialist Party of Austria to the Social Democratic Party of Austria (still SPÖ) after it had been banned after being suppressed during the Nazi period. The Austrian government found many benefits to the arrangement, as it was able to combine economic and professionals in alignment with two major parties.

Later, in the mid-80s, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) became popular and greater changes came as a result. However, environmental concerns also became a greater concern and the Greens made more headway than ever before. After, in the late 1980s, support by politicians to join the European Community was growing. Consequently, in the summer of 1989, the Austrian government put in a formal application to join.

The Second Kurz government later came into play to take over for the nonpartisan caretaker administration of 2019. This had held the fort after the collapse of the First Kurz government due to its FPÖ coalition partner scandal (see Ibiza affair further below). Significantly, after the scandal, there was a sharp decline in voter support for the FPÖ. Consequently, the highest ever surge in support for the Greens came about. However, the ÖVP still won the election. That said, the win was without a parliamentary majority. Therefore, the need for a coalition partner arose.

Current Austrian Government

This colorful political history leads up to the current shake-up of the Austrian government – the ÖVP-Greens partnership – which was born in 2020. Remarkably, this is a first-time coalition of the two parties that have mostly disparate views on policies. The world is watching to see if these two parties can truly unite to create a stable and environmentally sound future for the country.

The judiciary system in Austria

Essentially, the justice system in Austria stems from the federal level and court judgments are made in the name of the Republic. You will notice that it is very similar to other nations, with the judicial authority being split into four levels. Firstly, there are the Bezirksgericht (district courts). Secondly, come the Landesgericht (regional courts). Next, are the Oberlandesgericht (Higher Regional Court) as the next rung on the ladder. And finally, the Oberster Gerichtshof (Supreme Court) sits at the very top.

Interior of the Austrian Parliament

Then, there is the Verwaltungsgericht (Administrative Court) which deals with all disputes that arise in connection with decisions by the administrative authorities. Additionally, there is the Verfassungsgerichtshof (Constitutional Court) which deals with actions against federal, provincial, regional, or municipal authorities.

Importantly, judges in Austria are independent in the actions of their office. Both civil and criminal law proceedings are public. Final appeals go to the Supreme Court. In essence, the judiciary is separate from the executive at all levels. Conversely, the police are subject to the Republic of Austria.

Political tensions in Austria

In essence, the new coalition government signifies a large political shift within Austria. The Greens are now in partnership with the ÖVP, taking the place of the FPÖ after a corruption scandal nicknamed the ‘Ibiza scandal‘. It involves the deputy chancellor and head of the FPÖ party verbally agreeing to an unethical exchange with the niece of a Russian oligarch.

However, much of the country agrees with the FPÖ’s anti-immigration stance, which the current government is also making a priority with preventive detention and restrictive migration. Previously, the Greens have stood for liberal migration policies. Additionally, the new coalition plans to make the ban on headscarves in schools go up to age 14 for all girls.

On a progressive note, the government states Austria’s plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040. Additionally, it is committed to the generation of electricity through 100% renewable energy sources by 2030. Furthermore, the government will implement a tax on CO2 emissions by 2022.

The Austrian government and the European Union/EEA

Austria officially joined the European Union in 1995. The country is also a founding member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) that came into play in 1960.

Interestingly, various studies prove that the Austrian economy benefits largely from its participation in the EU. For example, some 70% of Austria’s foreign trade is with EU member states. Furthermore, exports have tripled since joining and 13,000 new jobs are created each year.

The citizens of Austria, in particular, benefit from being in the EU. This includes free borderless travel throughout Europe, European study possibilities, the right to settle in all member states, and the ease of having the common Euro currency. However, in the context of the refugee and migrant crisis that peaked in 2015, there are also ongoing debates over whether Austria or the EU should handle border control.

There are 19 members of the European Parliament from Austria. Austria also has permanent representation in Brussels to ease communication with the EU. European Union issues also feature prominently on the agenda of Austria’s foreign policy. Austrian voters also participate in European elections as members of the European Union.

The state of the economy in Austria

Austria boasts a well-developed social market economy. Overall, the country’s economy is among the highest in Europe. However, it has, along with most of the world, been hit hard by the recent health crisis that came in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. The economic summary on Austria outlined by OECD states that decisive action by the government has helped safeguard jobs during the difficult year that was 2020.

Coronavirus warning sign in Austria

Austria has a low percentage of unemployment in comparison to other EU countries and the rest of the world. However, the rate increased significantly in 2020 and will likely remain higher than usual. The OECD estimates that the GDP will contract by 8% in 2020 and only pick up gradually over the coming two years. Essentially, a generous support package has brought on a large budget deficit.

Previously, the Austrian economy has had a high performance over recent decades. Reportedly, the real GDP per capita was the 11th highest in the OECD and 6th highest in the EU in 2018. This is slightly ahead of Germany, Finland, and Belgium.

Useful resources

  • Wien.gv.at – a government website that provides information on the European electoral roll for non-Austrian EU citizens
  • Migration.gv.at – a government’s website with information on living and moving to Austria, as well as the government and political system
  • World Politics Review – offers in-depth news and expert analysis on global affairs including Austrian government and politics