Constitutional court overturns result of election in which independent Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly beat far-right candidate Norbert Hofer
By Philip Oltermann in Berlin for the Guardian
Austria’s constitutional court has annulled the result of the country’s presidential elections a week before the winning candidate was due to be sworn into office.
The court president, Gerhart Holzinger, announced on Friday that the run-off vote between Norbert Hofer of the populist rightwing Freedom party and Green-backed Alexander Van der Bellen would have to be repeated across the whole country after an investigation had revealed irregularities in the count of the vote in several constituencies.
In May, Hofer had lost out to Van der Bellen in a knife-edge election, with a majority of only 30,863 votes.
While the Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role, the outcome has been seen as hugely symbolic, with the Freedom party seemingly buoyed by growing anti-refugee sentiments and disaffection with the country’s political establishment.
The Freedom party had contested the outcome of the vote after claiming to have detected formal irregularities in 94 out of 117 constituencies, submitting a 150-word formal complaint to the constitutional court.
Over the course of the investigation, it had emerged that several counting centres had begun to process postal votes on the eve of the election, rather than on the day after the election, as Austrian electoral law requires.
Norbert Hofer (right) lost out to Alexander Van der Bellen (left) in a knife-edge election, with a majority of only 30,863 votes Photograph: Hans Punz/AFP/Getty Images
Witness statements in court also revealed that election scrutineers in some centres had signed minutes of the vote count without having read them.
While the court emphasised that there was no evidence of the outcome of the election having been actively manipulated, the confirmed irregularities had affected a total of 77,926 votes that could have gone to either Hofer or Van der Bellen – enough, in theory, to change the outcome of the election.
Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor and former leader of Austria’s Green party, was due to be sworn in as president in a week’s time, on Friday 8 July.
Constitutional court president Holzinger said that the ruling “did not turn anyone into a winner or a loser”, but that elections were the “fundamental basis of our democracy” and therefore had to be “fully functional”.
“Even in a stable democracy only the total adherence to electoral standards secures the citizens’ trust in our democracy”, Holzinger said.
The ruling is unprecedented in Austria. In 1970 and 1995, the country’s constitutional court had ordered re-elections in individual councils, but not in the entire country.
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