Austria delays presidential election re-run after postal ballot snag

Wolfgang Sobotka [EU 2016SK/Flickr]

A re-run of Austria’s presidential election scheduled for next month has been delayed, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said on Monday (12 September), after some postal voters complained of faulty seals on ballot papers.

The postponement is a further embarrassment for Austria, a wealthy and advanced Western democracy and EU member, and for the government of Chancellor Christian Kern.

The election, which had been due to take place on 2 October was called after problems with counting postal ballots also affected the original vote in May.

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Austria’s Interior Ministry said on Friday (9 September) it was considering postponing the re-run of a presidential election that is scheduled for 2 October on technical grounds after ballot papers for postal voting turned out to be damaged.

The re-run might now take place on either 27 November or 4 December, Sobotka told a news conference in Vienna, adding he was open to extending the vote to citizens who had reached the voting age of 16 since the spring.

In the original ballot, Austria came within 31,000 votes of becoming the first western European country to elect a far-right head of state since World War Two.

Norbert Hofer of the anti-migrant Freedom Party (FPO) lost that vote by less than one percentage point to independent Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party.

The Constitutional Court ordered a re-run after a challenge by the FPO, with judges citing irregularities in the way some postal ballots were processed.

Judges found that procedural errors took place with almost 80,000 votes, meaning that they potentially could have been tampered with.

Sobotka said afterwards he was “ashamed” by the scale of the “sloppiness” uncovered. Tabloid newspapers likened Austria to a “banana republic”.

Hofer has led in recent opinion polls. A far-right victory would resonate throughout the European Union, where migration driven by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa has become a major political issue.

The far-right has jumped on the problems with the election as proof that Austria needs to be shaken up. “We just want our country back,” Hofer said in a Facebook video.

The role of the Austrian president is largely — but not entirely — ceremonial.

Sobotka said on Friday (9 September) he was considering postponing the re-run after some postal voters said the glue on their forms was not working properly, making the seals insecure.

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Postponing the re-run will require a change to Austria’s electoral law.

Pushing the election back poses legal problems, however, and the government is considering drawing up special legislation or even changing the constitution to allow it to happen.

Another question is whether to update the voter register as, since the last election, tens of thousands of voters have died, while a similar number have turned 16 and can now vote, media reports said.

Austria has been without a president since 8 July, when Heinz Fischer stepped down. He was replaced on an interim basis by the speaker of parliament and two deputy speakers.

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