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Austrian Populists Get Second Chance as Presidential Vote Voided

Austrian Populists Get Second Chance as Presidential Vote Voided
(AP)

Saturday, 02 July 2016 08:06 AM

Austria’s Constitutional Court ordered a repeat of the country’s divisive presidential election, giving the anti-immigration Freedom Party another chance to install the first far-right head of state in western Europe since World War II.

Ruling on a Freedom Party complaint of irregularities, the court in Vienna threw out the result of the May 22 runoff won by Green Party-backed candidate Alexander Van Der Bellen, citing improper handling of about 78,000 absentee ballots. With only 30,863 votes separating Van der Bellen and the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer after the runoff, a repeat is required, the court said in a statement on Friday.

Eight days after the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, the ruling in Austria points to another acrimonious campaign in a country divided over immigration and relations with the EU as populist parties make inroads across Europe. The government has said the election would probably take place in the fall.

The race is difficult to call “given the tiny margin in the now invalidated result,” Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman said in a note. The Freedom Party “will now claim it is the victim of a conspiracy and use this to run a much noisier and more effective campaign than the mild-mannered Green candidate,” he said.

Austria’s election for the mostly ceremonial presidency exposed voters’ rejection of establishment parties as the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, which have alternated in leading the government since World War II, saw their candidates falter in the first round. Van Der Bellen leads Hofer by less than 1 percentage point, leaving them within the margin of error, according to a June 11 Gallup poll for Oesterreich newspaper.

“This ruling shouldn’t give rise to emotions,” Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern told reporters. “A defeated candidate has every right to express objections. I would like to see a short campaign that isn’t dominated by emotions.”

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 court faulted the handling of absentee ballots in many districts, saying rules had been broken. Proof of ballot manipulation wasn’t required and the Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, didn’t claim any. Instead, it focused on absentee ballots, where Van der Bellen had an edge.

“The challenge is granted,” Gerhart Holzinger, the Constitutional Court’s head, said in announcing Friday’s verdict. “In layman’s terms, that means that the entire runoff has to be repeated throughout all of Austria.”

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.

There was an “unbearable degree of sloppiness,” Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said last week.

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Austria's Constitutional Court ordered a repeat of the country's divisive presidential election, giving the anti-immigration Freedom Party another chance to install the first far-right head of state in western Europe since World War II.
austria, vote, presidential
542
2016-06-02
Saturday, 02 July 2016 08:06 AM
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