Austrian presidential election result overturned and must be held again
Austria’s Freedom party will get another go at providing the first far-right president in the European Union, after the country’s constitutional court annulled the result of May’s presidential election.
The court president, Gerhart Holzinger, announced on Friday that the run-off vote, in which Norbert Hofer of the Freedom party (FPÖ) narrowly lost to Green-backed Alexander Van der Bellen, would have to be repeated across the whole country after an investigation revealed irregularities in the count of the vote in several constituencies.
The unprecedented ruling comes a week before Van der Bellen was due to be sworn into office. Hofer had lost out to his rival in a knife-edge election on 22 May by only 30,863 votes.
While the Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role, the outcome has been seen as hugely symbolic, with the Freedom party seemingly buoyed by growing anti-refugee sentiment and disaffection with the country’s political establishment.
Hofer’s comment in a TV debate that “you will be surprised by what can be done [by a president]” had given rise to fears that the soft-spoken 45-year-old could make use of powers to dissolve parliament once in office.
Having previously appealed for Britain to reform the European Union from within, Hofer last week called for Austria to have its own referendum on EU membership if the alliance of states was to take further steps towards “a centralised union”.
“If the union develops incorrectly, then that is the moment for me where one needs to say: now we have to ask the Austrians as well,” Hofer said in an interview with Österreich.
The Freedom party contested the outcome of May’s vote after claiming to have detected formal irregularities in 94 out of 117 constituencies, submitting a 150-page formal complaint to the constitutional court.
Over the course of the investigation, it emerged that several counting centres had begun to process postal votes on the eve of the election rather than on the day after, as Austrian electoral law requires.
Interviews with more than 60 witnesses revealed that officials responsible for counting votes had often paid little regard to official guidelines, starting to count without election observers present in the room. Some election observers, in turn, signed off protocols they hadn’t read.
While the court emphasised that there was no evidence of the outcome of the election having been actively manipulated, the confirmed irregularities had affected a total of 77,926 votes that could have gone to either Hofer or Van der Bellen – enough, in theory, to change the outcome of the election.
Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor and former leader of Austria’s Green party, said he accepted the decision but could understand that some voters felt “unsettled” by the ruling, especially since there was no indication that any votes had been attributed to the wrong candidate.
“I will stand again in this run-off election, and I intend to win again – don’t let that be misunderstood”, Van der Bellen said. “If I managed to win under adverse circumstances once, then I can do it again”. Van der Bellen had won the final round of the election even though Hofer had emerged as the winner of the first round.
The 72-year-old was due to be sworn in as president in a week’s time, on Friday 8 July.
The Freedom party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, who had submitted the complaint to the court, said the irregularities that had triggered the rerun of the election were “not just sloppy mistakes but massive violations of the law” that “could not be tolerated”.
Strache said that although the court had not found any evidence of voting manipulation, “the court also hasn’t been able to establish that there has been no manipulation at all”. He described the court’s ruling as “a victory of democracy and justice”.
In the wake of the May result, the Freedom party heavily criticised the system for postal votes, which proved crucial in swinging the election for its competitor.
The constitutional court’s president said the ruling “did not turn anyone into a winner or a loser”, but elections were the “fundamental basis of our democracy” and therefore had to be “fully functional”.
He added: “Even in a stable democracy only the total adherence to electoral standards secures the citizens’ trust in our democracy.”
The ruling is unprecedented in Austria. In 1970 and 1995 the constitutional court ordered re-elections in individual councils but not in the entire country.
The new elections are expected to held on either 25 September or 2 October. The interior minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, announced in the wake of the court ruling that there would be no exit polls at the repeat elections.
Michael Link, director of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation inEurope (OSCE), said he would dispatch a team to monitor the elections.
In a further twist to an already convoluted tale, Hofer will effectively become a de facto president of Austria from next week. Since the incumbent, Heinz Fischer, has to step down from his post on 8 July, his role will temporarily be filled by a triumvirate of the three presidents of the national assembly – one of whom is Hofer.
The rightwinger insisted on Friday that he would be able to keep his official role and his political campaign separate in the coming months. “I will prove that I can rise above party politics,” he said.
The Austrian broadsheet Der Standard described the court verdict as “a two-fold success” for the FPÖ: “It doesn’t just get another go at lifting Hofer into the president’s seat, but also plenty of new material for its us-against-the-establishment propaganda: look, the old political system is so rotten that even the elections aren’t done properly anymore.”