VIENNA • Austria's Norbert Hofer has won another shot at being elected the European Union's first far-right president after a court dramatically annulled May's closely fought election result because of irregularities.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the May 22 runoff, which saw independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen beat Mr Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) by just 30,863 votes, must be held again.
"The challenge brought by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache against the May 22 election... has been upheld," court president Gerhart Holzinger said in an announcement broadcast live on national television yesterday.
Mr Hofer, 45, came top in a first round in April but then lost in a runoff with Mr Van der Bellen, 72, sparking relief among Europe's centrist parties.
Preliminary results had given Mr Hofer a narrow lead but after some 700,000 postal votes were counted, the Greens-backed Mr Van der Bellen was declared the winner of the largely ceremonial post.
The FPOe, which is topping opinion polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018, tapping rising unease about immigration, launched a legal challenge on June 8 claiming massive irregularities. These included allegations that tens of thousands of votes were opened earlier than allowed under election rules and that some votes were counted by people not authorised to do so.
As the court heard from witnesses, Mr Van der Bellen's lawyer had described the transgressions as having an "insignificant" impact on the election result, but in vain.
Yesterday's ruling stops in its tracks Mr Van der Bellen's planned inauguration on July 8. It is unclear when a new election will be held.
In the meantime, current President Heinz Fischer will still step down as planned and will be replaced on an interim basis by three parliamentary officials - one of whom is Mr Hofer.
The decision sets in motion what is likely to be a hard-fought and nail-biting new summer election battle between Mr Van der Bellen and Mr Hofer.
It is possible that Britain's referendum decision on June 23 to become the first member of the European Union (EU) to leave the bloc could turn Austria's future membership into a key election issue.
Mr Hofer, echoing French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, said after the Brexit bombshell that he would be in favour of holding a referendum in Austria if the EU fails to implement necessary reforms "within a year".
"If (the EU) evolves in the wrong direction, then in my opinion the time has come to ask the Austrians if they still want to be part of it," Mr Hofer told the Oesterreich tabloid on June 26.
Mr Van der Bellen, a calm but sharp-tongued economics professor known as "Sascha" for his Russian roots and who used to be leader of the Greens, is staunchly pro-EU.
As Austrian president, he has said he dreams of a border-free "United States of Europe" that defends the rights of minority groups.