Austria’s Constitutional Court ordered a repeat of the country’s divisive presidential election after allowing a challenge by the nationalist Freedom Party, whose candidate narrowly lost a May 22 runoff.
The anti-immigration Freedom Party had filed the complaint alleging vote-counting irregularities after its candidate, Norbert Hofer, lost the May 22 runoff to Alexander Van der Bellen by slightly more than 30,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast.
“The challenge is granted,” chief justice Gerhart Holzinger said in announcing the verdict in Vienna on Friday. “In layman’s terms, that means that the entire runoff has to be repeated throughout all of Austria.”
The unprecedented nullification of a national election risks further deepening divisions exposed by the close result and the acrimonious campaign that preceded it. After Green Party-backed Van der Bellen foiled Hofer’s bid to become the first populist head of state in western Europe since World War II, the Freedom Party may now point to the verdict as evidence that the political establishment tried to deny Hofer victory.
The Interior Ministry has said the runoff would probably take place in the fall. Two rounds of earlier voting for the mostly ceremonial post bared Austria’s political divide over migration and relations with the European Union, and the repeat is likely to produce more of the same.
The court faulted the handling of absentee ballots in many districts, saying rules had been broken. In line with similar court rulings in the past, proof of ballot manipulation wasn’t required and the Freedom Party didn’t claim any.
Support for Van der Bellen is less than 1 percentage point ahead of Hofer’s and within the margin of error, according to a June 11 Gallup poll published by the Oesterreich daily newspaper.
Support for the Freedom Party, which rose above 30 percent in opinion polls during the refugee crisis last year, hasn’t changed significantly since the presidential election and its challenge. About 33 percent would vote for the party nationwide, making it the biggest force ahead of the governing Social Democrats with 25 percent, pollster OGM found in a survey published in Kurier newspaper on June 19.
The Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, has focused complaints on absentee ballots. About 760,000 Austrians mailed in ballots or dropped them off in precincts ahead of election day or in different polling stations. Van der Bellen had a clear edge over Hofer among those voters.
Witnesses produced evidence of widespread ignorance of rules for how those absentee ballots are to be counted, combined with equally widespread false testimony by election officials or volunteers who had signed statements saying all rules were observed.
Officials from several districts told the court they had been bending the rules for years to speed up counting. On the other hand, a majority of districts was able to count the ballots without violating the law.
Those practices exposed an “unbearable degree of sloppiness,” Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said last week.
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