AFP – Austria’s interior minister said Saturday he was “ashamed” after the country’s highest court declared the result of May’s presidential election null and void because of widespread procedural “sloppiness”.
Friday’s ruling by the Constitutional Court invalidating the outcome of the May 22 election means that Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) will have another shot at becoming the EU’s first far-right president.
I am “disappointed, ashamed… The fact that this sloppiness and breaking of the law took place has shaken me massively,” Wolfgang Sobotka told Oe1 public radio, saying he was “embarrassed”.
The court’s ruling, triggered by an FPOe legal challenge, found that postal votes in 14 areas — or 78,000 votes — were opened too early or by unauthorised persons, and so could in theory have been tampered with.
Since this represented more than double the independent ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen’s winning margin of just 31,000 votes, the court said that the election must be held again. No date has been set, but it is expected to be in September.
National newspapers on Saturday were outraged. The Oesterreich tabloid said that the ruling showed that Austria is a “banana republic — probably the only country outside Africa and Kazakhstan that is unable to count votes properly.”
For the re-run, Sobotka said that media outlets and research institutes will not be provided with partial results before voting officially ends — unlike during the first take of the election on May 22.
The government would also consider changes to Austria’s electoral law, the minister said.
“At the next election, there will no results before all votes, including postal votes, have been counted,” he said.
Possible other changes could include allowing postal votes to be counted on the day of the election, and not the next day like now.
The Kurier daily reported that Sobotka wants to have election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) present.
The body decided after reviewing preparations not to send observers on May 22, the paper said.
– Brexit an issue? –
The post of Austrian president is largely ceremonial but a victory by the far-right would be of huge symbolic significance ahead of the next general elections in 2018, and give a further boost to other populist parties elsewhere in Europe.
Experts say it is impossible to predict what the outcome of the new election will be, although some say that they expect lower turnout, which could boost Hofer, 45, portrayed as the friendly face of the anti-immigration FPOe.
Britain’s June 23 decision to leave the EU could make a possible Austrian exit an election issue, with Hofer pledging a referendum if the EU fails to reform, becomes more centralised or if Turkey joins.
“The British case has shown that the EU, this EU, is clearly too remote from people. So I am convinced that a renewal of the EU is needed so that it returns to its basic values and to being closer to the people,” Hofer told Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
“A change in EU treaties towards a further reduction in member states’ national responsibilities would automatically lead to a referendum in Austria,” the paper quoted him as saying.
Van der Bellen, 72, is staunchly pro-EU. With polls showing Austrians largely in favour of remaining in the bloc he could turn Hofer’s comments to his advantage, particularly if Britain is seen to be suffering from its decision, commentators say.
“The majority of the population favours staying in the EU. And who knows what will be happening in Britain in September. Brexit won but there haven’t exactly been big celebrations,” political expert David Pfarrhofer from polling firm Market told AFP.