The July 1 decision by Austria’s high court to overturn the results of the May presidential election presents another opportunity for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) to come to power. That would be bad news for the European Union as the FPÖ’s presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, has vowed to call a referendum, if he is elected, to take Austria out of the EU “if the EU doesn’t change its course” within a year.
A Hofer victory is a possibility considering he lost the runoff by a narrow margin of 30,000 votes to independent candidate and former Green Party candidate, Alexander van der Bellen.
In a June 23 referendum, British voters supported the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, a so-called Brexit. The FPÖ may yet find the majority it needs to support an Austrian exit from the EU. With voters being among the most euroskeptic in the Union and Austrian politicians disparaging the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, the upcoming rerun may represent another step toward a more fragmented European continent.
A flawed election
Austria’s high court overturned the presidential election results citing “regulatory breaches.” The FPÖ had contested the results.
The court heard testimony from election officials. While fraud was not confirmed, it became evident that many election officials were unaware of the electoral laws. In some voting districts, postal ballots had been counted earlier than legally allowed, but officials nonetheless claimed that they had followed the rules.
These irregularities will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Austrian political system. The negligent attitude, which is widespread across the country, is also reflected in the electoral process itself. Minor breaches of electoral law have happened in the past, but even when they were successfully contested, the consequences for the process were relatively small.
Up until the May runoff, media and polling institutes received early results from the interior ministry before polls closed—a practice that the high court has now ruled illegal. Furthermore, election officials are volunteers of their respective parties, who face no consequences if they do not show up and their commission does not meet quorum.
Momentum for the far right
The high court’s ruling comes at a time when much is at stake for the future of Austria.
Observers expect that the court’s decision will give the FPÖ an opportunity to turn things around in the October 2 re-run. Party officials have already started to frame the ruling as a victory. The widespread mistrust in the political system among Hofer’s constituency is now being solidified, even though FPÖ officials were allegedly complicit in the wrongdoings. Herbert Kickl, a leading strategist with the FPÖ, said that he is convinced that Hofer will win the re-run. Latest polls show Hofer in the lead, while Van der Bellen has lost momentum.
In the May runoff, the country saw an unequivocal mobilization of constituencies to prevent a far-right victory. Officials across the political spectrum rallied behind Van der Bellen who promised to unite, rather than divide Austrians. Still, Hofer gained almost as many votes. This demonstrated that barriers to vote for a far-right, populist candidate are being lowered amid a climate of economic and social uncertainty. It is doubtful whether Van der Bellen can mobilize that same coalition again.
Teresa Eder is an intern at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @teresaeder.