Austrian far-right party gets second tilt at presidency

Constitutional court orders election re-run after irregularities in counting of votes

Presidential candidates Alexander Van der Bellen (left) and Norbert Hofer. Just 30,863 votes separated the candidates in the May poll. Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Presidential candidates Alexander Van der Bellen (left) and Norbert Hofer. Just 30,863 votes separated the candidates in the May poll. Photograph: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

 

Austria’s far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) has been handed a second chance to take Vienna’s Hofburg Palace after the constitutional court ordered a complete re-run of the presidential election run-off.

Irregularities in counting of postal votes and other problems plagued the May poll, which saw the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer losing by just 30,863 votes to Alexander Van der Bellen, backed by the Green Party.

After two weeks of public hearings, the court ruled the poll was invalid and ordered a full re-run, sending shock waves through Austrian political circles at the extra chance for what would be Europe’s first far-right head of state.

The 54 year-old Mr Hofer topped the first round in April, promising a tougher line on immigration and the EU in the largely ceremonial post.

In the second-round run-off, preliminary results put Mr Hofer ahead by a whisker until some 700,000 postal votes were counted and Mr Van der Bellen was declared the winner.

The FPÖ challenged the result and, in court, dozens of witnesses confirmed that tens of thousands of postal votes were counted in an irregular manner – either because they were counted after the allocated time or by people not authorised to do so.

Counsel for Mr Van der Bellen argued that these irregularities would have had only an “insignificant” impact on the ballot.

But the court ruled that 77,926 votes could be considered problematic, enough to theoretically reverse the result.

Court president Gerhart Holzinger insisted in his ruling that “no witness noticed manipulation” and that the judges had no constitutional concern about the postal votes themselves.

Mr Van der Bellen was scheduled to be sworn in on July 8th. Until fresh elections can be called for September, outgoing president Heinz Fischer will be replaced on an interim basis by three parliamentary officials – one of whom is Mr Hofer.

Short, sharp campaign

The FPÖ candidate, who presented himself to voters at the moderate end of his party, said a “short, sharp campaign” would show voters he could act above party political interests.

In the previous campaign, Mr Hofer attracted controversy for hinting that, if elected, he would dissolve parliament and force early elections – with his FPÖ currently leading opinion polls.

Mr Van der Bellen said he respected the court’s ruling but reacted with humour to the news that the Hofburg was not yet his.

“If I won once under adverse conditions, I can win again,” he said. “There is no indication that votes were attributed incorrectly, but electoral law was not applied correctly in some constituencies.”

With an eye on post-Brexit turbulence in Britain, he appealed to voters to rally behind him as a unifiying candidate.

“This is not a game,” he added.

Austria’s political leaders worked hard to keep the lid on an extraordinary political development.

The new Social Democrat chancellor Christian Kern dismissed suggestions that the electoral confusion had damaged the country’s reputation.

“It’s hardly a source of joy,” he said, “but we can show that we can see in this that democracy and the rule of law function in Austria. ”

A verbatim reaction followed from an uncharacteristically muted FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

He said his party’s succesful challenge rendered the election “null and void” and warned that electoral irregularities “cannot be tolerated” in the future.