Austria’s presidential run-off election must be held again, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled on Friday (1 July), handing the Freedom Party’s narrowly defeated candidate another chance to become the first far-right head of state in the European Union.
Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) lost the 22 May vote to former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen by just 30,863 votes, or less than one percentage point. Postal ballots tipped the balance in Van der Bellen’s favour.
“The challenge brought by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache against the 22 May election… has been upheld,” Austria’s Constitutional Court President Gerhart Holzinger said in an announcement live on national television.
The court said it was applying its strict standard on the application of election rules. Witnesses have told it of irregularities in the way the count was carried out, including the processing of postal ballots sooner than they should have been.
Gun enthusiast Hofer, 45, came top in a first round in April but then lost in a runoff with the 72 year-old Van der Bellen, sparking relief among Europe’s centrist parties.
Preliminary results had given Hofer a narrow lead, but after some 700,000 postal votes were counted, the Greens-backed Van der Bellen was declared the winner of the largely ceremonial post the next day.
The FPÖ, which is topping opinion polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018 tapping rising unease about immigration, launched a legal challenge on 8 June, claiming massive irregularities.
These included allegations that tens of thousands of votes were opened earlier than allowed under election rules, and that some votes were counted by people not authorised to do so.
As the court heard from dozens of witnesses, Van der Bellen’s lawyer had described the transgressions as having an “insignificant” impact on the election result, but in vain.
Friday’s ruling stops in its tracks Van der Bellen’s planned inauguration on 8 July. It is unclear when a new election will be held.
In the meantime, current President Heinz Fischer will still step down as planned and will be replaced on an interim basis by three parliamentary officials – one of whom is Hofer.
Brexit to play a role?
The decision sets in motion what is likely to be a hard-fought and nail-biting new summer election battle between van der Bellen and Hofer.
It remains to be seen whether the FPÖ’s success in getting the election held again will translate into getting Hofer into the Habsburg dynasty’s former imperial palace, the Hofburg.
It is possible that Britain’s referendum decision on 23 June to become the first member of the European Union to leave the bloc could also turn Austria’s future membership into a key election issue.
Hofer, echoing French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, said after the Brexit bombshell that he would be in favour of holding a referendum in Austria if EU fails to implement necessary reforms “within a year”.
“If (the EU) evolves in the wrong direction, then in my opinion the time has come to ask the Austrians if they still want to be part of it,” Hofer told the Österreich tabloid on 26 June.
Chancellor Christian Kern of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ), who in mid-May replaced Werner Faymann after he quit following the defeat of his presidential candidate in the first round, has ruled out such a vote.
“It makes no sense… This is a time to learn lessons and dispel people’s doubts and fears,” he said just after the Brexit result.
Van der Bellen, a calm but sharp-tongued slightly dishevelled economics professor known as “Sascha” for his Russian roots and who used to be leader of the Greens, is staunchly pro-EU.
As Austrian president, he has said he dreams of a border-free “United States of Europe” that defends the rights of minority groups.