July 1, 2016
In a potential new challenge to European Union unity, Austria’s highest court on Friday ordered a rerun of the country’s presidential election, giving a right-wing euroskeptic candidate a second change at the office after his narrow loss last month.
The decision was unprecedented in Austria’s post-war history, appearing to be the first time that a nationwide election has been annulled and a repeat vote called in any European Union country.
The ruling, announced by Constitutional Court chief judge Gerhart Holzinger, represents a victory for the Freedom Party, which challenged the May 22 runoff on claims of widespread irregularities. But it also has wider implications that encompass other European countries.
With Britain’s pending departure from the European Union, a win by Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer would boost not only his party but also kindred movements in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere lobbying for less EU power or outright exits from the European Union.
Those parties already had hailed Hofer’s strong showing in May as proof of a surge in pan-European anti-EU sentiment.
While Austrian referendums are decided by parliament and not by the president, a win by Hofer could increase pressure in the country for a popular vote on whether Austria should stay in the EU.
After last week’s pro-exit vote in Britain, he said he could see the need for such a referendum within a year “if the Union develops wrongly.”
That time would come, he said, if the EU “develops into a centralistic Union instead of returning to the original basic values.”
Hofer was leading after the polls closed in May, but final results after a count of absentee ballots put former Green party politician Alexander Van der Bellen ahead by only a little more than 30,000 votes. The final count gave Van der Bellen 50.3%, compared with 49.7% for Hofer.
The Freedom Party asserted that the law had been contravened in one way or another in most of the 117 electoral districts.
The court ruled broadly with Freedom Party claims that absentee ballots were sorted before electoral commission officials arrived; some officials stayed away during absentee vote counts but signed documents saying they were present; some ballot envelopes were opened without authorization; and related violations.
Holzinger also spoke of the possibility of individuals voting twice and of potential violations by the interior ministry through early releases of partial results under a publishing embargo to the media, pollsters and other institutions.
Considering the breaches and possible violations, he said the court had no choice but to call for a rerun, noting that the irregularities potentially affected nearly 78,000 votes — more than twice the margin separating the two candidates.
He acknowledged that opting for a new vote instead of a recount represented a “rigorous measure” on the part of his court. But he said this was necessary “in the interest of the legality of the elections, which represent one of the foundations of the state … in a democratic republic.”
He emphasized that the irregularities did not point to willful cheating, saying testimony from witnesses led to no indication of “manipulation” of the results.
At the same time, he noted the investigation suggested that previous national elections also were beset by similar problems that remained hidden until now.
Government officials also sought to cast the decision not as a failure but as a victory for strong democratic institutions — and in one tongue-in-cheek instance, alluded to the British referendum results.
“Sometimes, a re-vote is not the worst thing in the world. If someone in the UK needs the phone-number of our Supreme Court: +43-1-531220,” tweeted Martin Weiss, Austria’s ambassador to Israel.
Holzinger’s ruling came just a week before Van der Bellen was due to be sworn in and 40 days after he was declared the winner.
Until the rerun, the presidency will be run jointly by the three parliamentary presidents — one of whom is Hofer — once Heinz Fischer, the current president, steps down next week.
Hofer and the other co-presidents from the governing center-left coalition said they would restrict themselves to the essentials and avoid high-profile representational functions during their interim terms as triumvirate Austrian heads of state.
And Hofer insisted he would avoid any effort to exploit his position and hew to the principle of impartiality expected of Austria’s presidents, telling reporters, “I will prove that I will act in a nonpartisan way.”
Still, the function as one of the interim Austrian presidents gives Hofer an additional platform that could help him in his renewed election campaign.
Lothar Lockl, who ran Van der Bellen’s campaign, said the court decision must be respected. He urged everyone to vote in the new runoff and called on Van der Bellen supporters to rally behind him.
The rerun is expected to be held in September or October.