VIENNA — A second attempt this year to elect Austria’s president was postponed Monday when the country’s interior minister said envelopes of absentee ballots frequently couldn’t be sealed due to faulty adhesive strips.
The delay must be formalized through a still-to-be-created law. But in asking the government to draft such legislation, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka effectively canceled plans to hold the vote Oct. 2.
The presidency originally was to have been filled in July, after left-leaning contender Alexander Van der Bellen edged out Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party. But the country’s highest court ordered a rerun after the Freedom Party claimed major irregularities.
The court decision was seen as a victory for the Freedom Party, giving it more time to exploit widespread anti-migrant sentiment in favor of its candidate. Recent polls have given Hofer a 4 to 6 percentage-point edge over Van der Bellen.
Monday’s unprecedented development means that Austria will remain without a head of state for at least two more months. Shortly after Sobotka’s announcement, the center-left government coalition agreed to hold the vote on Dec. 4, leaving time for legislation to be drawn up and passed by parliament, as well as for printing and distributing new absentee ballots and envelopes.
The repeat vote was ordered after the country’s highest court ruled broadly in favor of the Freedom Party’s claims, which included that absentee ballots from May voting were sorted before electoral commission officials arrived; that some officials stayed away during absentee vote counts but signed documents saying they were present; and that some ballot envelopes were opened without authorization.
Judges also spoke of the possibility of individuals voting twice and of potential violations by the Interior Ministry, which released partial results under a publishing embargo to media, pollsters and other institutions.
“We cannot estimate how many and which of these ballots could open,” Sobotka said of the faulty envelopes, adding that because the flaw raises the possibility the ballots could be tampered with, “we cannot carry out proper elections.”
Van der Bellen said “there was no way around” the postponement, adding the thought that a validly cast ballot then is judged invalid because of a technical fault is “unbearable.”
Hofer was low-key. “One simply has to take the things that happen in life as they come,” he told reporters on the sidelines of talks in Prague with Czech President Milos Zeman, who shares Hofer’s Euroskepticism.
But senior Freedom Party official Herbert Kickl scathingly blamed the ruling coalition for the series of delays.
“The government is not in a position to ensure a proper election in the proper time,” he said. “The embarrassments continue without end.”
Austria’s president has mostly ceremonial responsibilities. A Hofer win, however, would boost not only his party but also far-right and nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe that all are lobbying for a weaker European Union or an outright exit from the bloc.
With no president now in office, the post’s functions are being exercised by the three parliamentary presidents, one of whom is Hofer.
Associated Press video journalist Adam Pemble contributed from Prague