Austria’s highest court on Friday ordered new presidential elections to be held, ruling that the country’s plebiscite in May could have been marred by widespread voting irregularities.
The Austrian Constitutional Court’s ruling is likely to boost the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, which narrowly lost the presidential contest and had challenged the vote.
The new national election was ordered by Gerhart Holzinger, the court’s presiding judge, and marks that the court has ordered that an election be repeated nationwide.
The Freedom Party had challenged the election after its candidate, Norbert Hofer, an aeronautical engineer, narrowly lost in a run-off to Alexander van der Bellen, former head of Austria’s Green Party.
Initially, the outcome of the May 22 election suggested Mr. Hofer, who has been active in politics since the mid-1990s, had won the race. But after counting 700,000 mail-in ballots, Mr. van der Bellen was declared the winner with an edge of about 30,000 votes.
The Freedom Party at first accepted the defeat, but then challenged it. The party claimed evidence of voting irregularities in 94 of Austria’s 117 constituencies. The court, in its ruling, said it found irregularities in the proceedings potentially affecting up to 78,000 votes. The court said it did not find evidence of manipulation, but that the errors in voting process — such as mail-in ballots being opened too early — were enough to hold a second plebiscite.
The court on Friday ruled that the election not just be repeated in constituencies where the process was flawed, but across all of Austria. It had heard testimony from more than 90 election officials during the three-week proceedings.
The first round of presidential elections in April sent ripples through Austria when the two outsiders, Mr. Hofer and Mr. van der Bellen, garnered the most votes, while none of the major political parties, the conservative People’s Party and the Social Democrats, made it into the run-off election. Then-chancellor Werner Faymann of the Social Democrats stepped down after his party’s first-round defeat, and Christian Kern was sworn in as new chancellor.
“There can be no doubt about the legitimacy of elections in a democracy,” Mr. Kern said moments after the court released its ruling. The court in its ruling also criticized Austrian media and the Austrian interior ministry for releasing partial results of the election hours before polls closed.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said that he might propose a new election date as early as Tuesday. The interior ministry earlier had already named September 25 and October 2 as possible dates for the new ballot to be held.
Mr. Sobotka said no new changes were needed to Austrian election law, but attributed the confusion to “human error and sloppiness.” He requested election observers next time be sent to the affected Austrian precincts by the OSCE, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Mr. van der Bellen himself on Friday reiterated that he will stand in the next election, and that he is confident to win. “Of course I will stand for this run-off election again,” he said at a press conference in Vienna on Friday afternoon. “If I won once under adverse circumstances, then I can do it a second time,” he added.
Mr. van der Bellen also said that the court “found not a single indication that votes had been falsely attributed,” stressing that there was not actually any proof of manipulation, just a window for potential manipulation detected.
Friday’s verdict will prevent Mr. van der Bellen from being sworn in on July 8 as Austria’s new president. In the interim, a three-person parliamentary panel, including Mr. Hofer, will fulfill the ceremonial duties of president.
Commenting on the court’s decision, Mr. Hofer said Friday afternoon: “I am happy that the Constitutional Court has taken a very important decision in an objective manner.”
He also promised to clearly separate his work on the panel that stands in for the president and his campaign to become Austrian president in the run-up to the new election.
The post of president is largely ceremonial in Austria, a parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, the president has the power to dissolve the elected government. Mr. Hofer during his campaign threatened to use the power if elected and the government refused to follow his hard line on immigration and social reforms.
According to Vienna newspaper Der Standard, only two elections have ever been ordered to be repeated by the Constitutional Court. In 1970 and 1995, some constituencies had to repeat balloting for parliamentary elections because of irregularities. In both cases, the Freedom Party had challenged the results.