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Austrian court overturns presidential election, gives far-right a second chance

Leftist leader Alexander Van der Bellen, left, and far-right Norbert Hofer in debate prior to May election.
(Harald Schneider/Getty Images)

The most contentious Austrian presidential election since World War II will have to be repeated due to irregularities in the counting of absentee ballots, the country’s highest court ruled Friday in a stunning decision that gives the losing far-right populist candidate a second chance and only adds to the political turbulence in Europe.

Just one week after Britain followed the conservative calls to leave the European Union, Austria’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of right wing candidate Norbert Hofer and his Freedom Party, which had filed a complaint about irregularities after losing the May 22 election to leftist candidate Alexander Van der Bellen by a razor-think margin of just 31,000 votes – or 50.3% to 49.7%.

The court agreed, citing the counting of some of the 740,000 absentee ballots on May 22 instead of on the day after the election, May 23, as the election law states.

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Hofer has made xenophobic appeals to voters in a fashion compared to those of Donald Trump. He is opposed to immigrants, Muslims and transatlantic free-trade agreements and touched a nerve in the Alpine country of 8.7 million at the heart of Europe.

Norbert Hofer, whose campaign appeals have been compared to Donald Trump's, at election party in Vienna.
Norbert Hofer, whose campaign appeals have been compared to Donald Trump’s, at election party in Vienna.
(Ronald Zak / Associated Press )

Hofer, seeking to become the first far-right populist to lead a Western European country since World War II, had held a small lead after the popular vote was counted. But he ended up losing to Van der Bellen when the record 700,000 absentee ballots were counted a day later.

“The challenge is upheld,” said Gerhart Holzinger, the chairman of the Constitutional Court in Vienna. “The decision doesn’t make anyone a winner or loser. This ruling is designed to strengthen confidence in the state based on the rule of law and democracy.”

The first repeat of an Austrian presidential election will be held in September or October, officials in Vienna said.

“Naturally I’m going to run again and I intend to win again,” said Van der Bellen.

Hofer said: “It’s going to be a short but sweet election.”

Even though the Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial post with none of the powers wielded by the leader of government, the chancellor, this year’s election attracted attention across Europe and around the world because of Hofer’s success.

Hofer drew international headlines by positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate unequivocally opposed to allowing in more refugees. Austria initially warmly welcomed some 90,000 refugees from the Middle East in the wake of the Syrian crisis. but earlier this year it slammed its borders shut amid protests over the growing number of refugees entering the country.

The runoff election between Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Greens party, and Hofer was already a sensation in Austria after a remarkable rejection in the first round in April of the country’s dominant center-left Social Democrats and center right People’s Party. The two parties have ruled Austria since World War II, but their candidates were knocked out in the preliminary round.

Kirschbaum is a special correspondent

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