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Austrian election postponed due to defective glue on ballot envelopes

A re-vote in the Austrian presidential election, which could install the first far-right populist leader in Western Europe since World War II, was postponed on Monday over defective glue.

The government in Vienna was forced to acknowledge that the glue used on the envelopes for the absentee ballots wouldn’t stick – another embarrassing setback after the results of the initial vote in May were thrown out in court.

Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer, a dapper dresser and skilled orator who campaigned on an openly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim program, lost the May 22 election to leftist candidate Alexander Van der Bellen by a razor-thin margin of just 31,000 votes, or 50.3% to 49.7%. Even though the Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial post, the election attracted attention across Europe and around the world because of Hofer’s rhetoric.

Hofer later filed a successful complaint to the Constitutional Court about procedural irregularities: Some of the 740,000 absentee ballots were counted on election day instead of a day later.

Hofer had actually held a small lead after the popular vote was counted on May 22. A day later, he ended up losing to Van der Bellen when the record number absentee ballots were counted on May 23. All absentee ballots should have been counted on May 23 but some were counted -- illegally -- on May 22. The court said that sloppiness mandated that the whole election be done over.

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A new round of voting was set for Oct. 2, and recent opinion polls showed the once-vanquished Hofer well ahead of his rival, Alexander Van der Bellen from the Greens party, as the fragile coalition to defeat Hofer started to unravel and Hofer’s conservative supporters became energized after getting the unexpected reprieve.

On Monday, the Austrian government official responsible for elections threw a new wrench in the works by announcing the vote would have to be postponed – to the end of November or early December.

“There were production errors with the ballots,” said Wolfgang Sobotka, Austria’s interior minister, after the federal crime agency examined the envelopes and found them to be faulty. Sobotka apologized to Austrians for the blunder.

“The envelopes re-open 25 minutes after being sealed,” he said. “That means there are several hundred invalid absentee ballots that have already been distributed. It’s thus not possible to have a legally unobjectionable election.”

The election already caused a stir in Austria in April, when candidates from the dominant center-left Social Democrats and center-right People’s Party — the parties that had ruled Austria since World War II — were eliminated in the first round of voting, sending the Freedom Party and the Greens to a runoff election.

Hofer drew international headlines by positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate unequivocally opposed to allowing in any more refugees.

He has made xenophobic appeals to voters that have drawn comparisons to Donald Trump. By virulently opposing immigrants, Muslims and transatlantic free trade agreements, he touched a nerve in the Alpine country of 8.7 million at the heart of Europe.

His rise reflects turmoil in Austria and in Europe, where many countries have undergone a major shift to the right in the last year. At first, Austria warmly welcomed some 90,000 refugees from the Middle East but closed its borders earlier this year amid popular protests and the high numbers of refugees.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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