Thursday 8 December 2016

Austrian vote re-run marks rise of far-right in Europe

Justin Huggler

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (R) and head of the Austrian Freedom party Heinz-Christian Strache (L) react at the party headquarters in Vienna. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File Photo
Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (R) and head of the Austrian Freedom party Heinz-Christian Strache (L) react at the party headquarters in Vienna. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File Photo

Europe was plunged into fresh crisis yesterday as Austria's courts ordered a re-run of the country's presidential election.

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The constitutional court ruled the election, in which a far-right candidate was narrowly defeated, would have to be held again because of irregularities in counting postal votes.

The ruling means the far-right may seize the presidency of a European Union member state for the first time.

Norbert Hofer, the gun-toting candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), lost the election in May by just 31,000 votes.

He was defeated by Alexander Van der Bellen, a soft-spoken former economics professor endorsed by the country's Green Party.

"Confidence in the rule of law is the foundation of a democracy," Mr Van der Bellen said.

"I will stand in the rerun, and I intend to win it. I urge all citizens to exercise their right to vote.

"This is no game. For me, it is about the unity of Austria."

Supporters

Mr Hofer's supporters will hope Friday's ruling means he can seize the presidency after all.

"I am pleased the constitutional court has taken this very important decision objectively," Mr Hofer said.

The decision will send shockwaves through EU governments already grappling with the consequences of Britain's vote to leave the bloc.

Mr Hofer campaigned on an openly anti-immigrant platform and carried a Glock pistol on the election trail.

While his party does not want Austria to follow Britain out of the EU, it is calling for radical reform of the bloc and has threatened to hold an "Auxit" referendum if it doesn't get its way.

The FPÖ wants powers returned to national parliaments and an end to EU control over immigration policy - in other words, the most powerful far-right party in Europe's shopping list is much the same as the British Leave campaign's.

The Austrian presidency is largely ceremonial, and would not give the FPÖ the power to force through its policies.

But the party is leading in the polls ahead of general elections due in 2018, and Mr Hofer has said he will use the full powers of the presidency if elected - including the right to dismiss the government and call elections.

Mr Hofer initially called on his supporters to accept the results of May's election, but the FPÖ later made a U-turn and filed the complaint over voting irregularities which led to Friday's ruling.

Wolfgang Sobotka, the interior minister, said a date would be announced for the re-run of the election next week, after he had consulted with cabinet colleagues.

The re-run is not expected to be held before September or October.

The decision means Mr Van der Bellen cannot be sworn in as president when incumbent Heinz Fischer's term ends next week.

Instead, the presidency will pass to an temporary acting triumvirate made up of the speaker of the Austrian parliament and his two deputies. Mr Hofer will be a member of this triumvirate, as the junior of the two deputy speakers.

"The result was overturned because of technical errors, not vote manipulation," Christian Kern, the Austrian chancellor said, calling for calm.

"The decision should not be a cause for emotion."

He called for a short campaign and said he hoped turnout would be high, although he acknowledged there was a likelihood of voter fatigue.

Irish Independent

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