Austrian Far-Right Gets Election Defeat Annulled

Austria's Norbert Hofer won Friday another shot at becoming the European Union's first far-right anti-immigration president after the country's highest court dramatically annulled May's closely fought election result.

The Constitutional Court found no evidence of cheating but ruled that procedural irregularities were sufficiently serious and widespread for the May 22 runoff, which saw Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) lose by just 30,863 votes, to be declared null and void.

"The decision I am announcing today has no winner and no loser, it has only one aim: to strengthen trust in the rule of law and democracy," the court's president Gerhart Holzinger said in an announcement carried live on national television.

"I am happy that the court has taken a difficult decision," Hofer said. "I have great trust in the rule of law".

Gun enthusiast Hofer came top in a first round of voting in April and preliminary results on the evening of the May 22 runoff against independent ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, put the 45-year-old narrowly ahead.

But after some 700,000 postal votes were counted, the Greens-backed Van der Bellen was declared the winner of the largely ceremonial post the next day, sparking relief among centrist parties in Austria and across Europe.

The FPOe, which is topping opinion polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018 as it stokes concerns about immigration, launched a legal challenge on June 8 alleging "terrifying" irregularities.

After dozens of witnesses detailed what Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka called widespread "sloppiness", the court found that postal votes in 14 areas -- representing 78,000 votes -- were opened at the wrong time, and so could have been doctored.

It also ruled that in the future, media and research institutions will no longer be provided with partial results -- although they are not supposed to be published -- since this is capable of influencing voters, Holzinger said Friday.

- Brexit effect? -

The decision stops in its tracks Van der Bellen's planned inauguration on July 8. It is unclear when a new election -- which will just concern the runoff, not the first round -- will take place.

In the meantime, current President Heinz Fischer will still step down as planned and be replaced in the interim by parliamentary officials -- including Hofer, who promised Friday a "clear division" between this job and his campaign.

The ruling, which was not a big surprise, sets in motion what is likely to be a hard-fought and nail-biting new summer election battle. Chancellor Christian Kern called Friday for a "short campaign free of emotions."

Hofer comes across as the moderate, friendly face of the FPOe, focusing on issues like wanting more Swiss-style direct democracy and opposing a mooted EU-US trade deal rather than the record 90,000 asylum applications in Austria last year.

Islam "has no place in Austria" and is a religion "that sees the whole world as a battleground, and until all of humanity is Islamic," he has said. Unlike Van der Bellen, he opposes gay marriage.

It is possible that Britain's referendum decision on June 23 to leave the EU could also turn Austria's future membership into an election issue.

Echoing French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, Hofer after the Brexit bombshell came out in favor of an Austrian referendum if the EU fails to reform enough "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," Hofer said.

Van der Bellen, a slightly disheveled economics professor who used to be leader of the Greens, is staunchly pro-EU, and surveys show strong popular support for continued membership.

Frauke Petry, head of Alternative for Germany, one of many other populist groups on the rise in Europe, calling Friday's ruling a "big opportunity" for Hofer. In Brussels the European Commission declined to comment.

Source: Agence France Presse

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