Austria’s Norbert Hofer won Friday another shot at being elected the European Union’s first far-right president after a court dramatically annulled May’s closely fought election result because of irregularities.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the May 22 runoff, which saw independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen beat Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) by just 30,863 votes, must be held again.
“The challenge brought by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache against the May 22 election… has been upheld,” court president Gerhart Holzinger said in an announcement live on national television.
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 FPOe, which is topping opinion polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018 tapping rising unease about immigration, launched a legal challenge on June 8 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 July 8. At a press conference in Vienna shortly after the ruling, the former Greens leader said the run-off vote is likely to be held in September or October.
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.
‘Politics is not a game,’ says Van der Bellen
Reacting to the unprecedented ruling, Van der Bellen expressed confidence in his party’s ability to win a re-run vote. “I am very confident that my team and I will manage again what we did last time, winning widespread support from all different sections of society, different parties, religions and cultures,” he said.
“In September we will do it again. Politics is not a game… Austria needs to be well represented in Europe and the world. If we can do it once, we can do it again,” Van der Bellen added.
Meanwhile Hofer and the other co-presidents from the governing centre-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.
Hofer insisted he would avoid any effort to exploit his position and adhere to the principle of impartiality expected of Austria’s presidents, telling reporters “I will prove that I will act in a non-partisan way.”
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 FPOe’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 June 23 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 Oesterreich tabloid on June 26.
Chancellor Christian Kern of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), who in mid-May replaced Werner Faymann after he quit after his presidential candidate was knocked out 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.