Austrian presidential election comes unstuck

Austrian presidential candidates Van der Bellen (left) and Hofer during the May polls. If Mr Hofer wins this time, he would be Europe's first far-right head of state since 1945.
Austrian presidential candidates Van der Bellen (left) and Hofer during the May polls. If Mr Hofer wins this time, he would be Europe's first far-right head of state since 1945.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

VIENNA • Austria's government was forced yesterday to announce an embarrassing postponement of its Oct 2 presidential election because of glue failing to stick on postal votes.

"The defective vote envelopes have glue on the top edge and on the side. These come unstuck and the flap can still be easily opened and closed even after 20-25 minutes," Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said.

"We are going to request that Parliament approves a postponement of the election," he told reporters. Possible new dates are Nov 27 - his preferred option - or Dec 4, he said.

The announcement is a further blow to Austria's image, a wealthy and advanced Western democracy and EU member, and for the government of Chancellor Christian Kern.

Austria has been without a president since July 8 when Dr Heinz Fischer stepped down. He was replaced on an interim basis by the Speaker of Parliament and two deputy speakers.

The last election result from May was annulled after Austria's highest court in July upheld claims of procedural irregularities made by the narrowly defeated far-right.

This was also because of problems with the 700,000 postal votes cast, although these included votes being counted too early, or by officials without the authority to do so.

In the May election, Mr Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) lost by just 31,000 votes to independent ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen.

If Mr Hofer wins this time, he would be Europe's first far-right head of state since 1945.

In common with other populist parties around Europe, the FPOe has stoked concerns about record entry into Europe last year of more than a million migrants.

The role of Austria's president is largely ceremonial, but he or she can, in theory, sack the government - something Mr Hofer has in the past threatened to do.

The 45-year-old has sought to portray himself as the friendly and moderate face of the FPOe, focusing not on immigration, but on issues like EU trade deals and wanting more Swiss-style "direct democracy".

But he has also said Islam "has no place" in Austria and opposes gay marriage.

Expert Thomas Hofer said of the highly embarrassing postponement: "Trust in democratic institutions was already low, and this will do further damage.

"In the longer term, this will help the FPOe, which has always argued that the system is on the blink."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Austrian presidential election comes unstuck'. Print Edition | Subscribe