Austria’s highest court ruled on July 1 to annul the results of May’s presidential election following a legal challenge from the far-right party whose candidate – Norbert Hofer – lost by a narrow margin.
“The challenge brought by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache against the May 22 election… has been upheld,” said Gerhard Holzinger, head of Austria’s Constitutional Court.
The Freedom Party challenged the vote, citing irregularities in the counting of absentee ballots. The court has called for a rerun, expected in September or October, which may lead to a far-right party leading a European Union country for the first time.
Freedom Party candidate Hofer won a first round of elections in April and was ahead in the polls just before losing the runoff to the Green Party’s Alexander van der Bellen by only 30 000 votes.
The ruling Friday dramatically halted plans to inaugurate Van der Bellen on July 8. Current president Heinz Fischer will step down as planned and will be replaced on an interim basis by three parliamentary officials – one of whom is Hofer.
Hofer, 45, campaigned openly on an anti-immigrant platform and reportedly carried a pistol on the campaign trail.
Far-right and anti-immigrant parties have been gaining ground in European countries in recent months, particularly as Europe reels from Britain’s decision to leave the EU.
Hofer’s Freedom Party does not explicitly want an ‘Auxit’, but has said the party will push for drastic reforms of the bloc and has threatened to hold a referendum to also leave the EU if its demands are not met.
Similarly extreme or conservative politicians such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Britain’s Boris Johnson have attracted their respective countries’ citizens with anti-immigrant and nationalist rhetoric. Leaving the EU particularly appeals to those opposing the influx of immigrants across their borders and preferring to focus on domestic issues.
Britain’s Johnson was a strong proponent of the ‘Brexit’, but has since said he will not be running to lead the country as prime minister.
Though the presidential role in Austria is largely ceremonial, Hofer’s election would mark the first far-right politician to actually take power in a European Union country, a prospect frightening to liberals and EU supporters across the continent.
Growing unease toward immigrants and its counterpart – liberal unease toward increasingly hateful and nationalist rhetoric – have spread across the Atlantic, as the U.S. faces the reality that business mogul Donald Trump may become the next president. The presumptive Republican nominee, who has said he would prevent Muslims from entering the country and build a wall along the Mexican border, has received strong support from the American public, faring nearly as well as his rival Hillary Clinton in many polls.
(The Leopoldine wing of Hofburg Imperial Palace in Vienna, home to the offices of the Austrian federal president. Photo: Thomas Wolf/Wikimedia Commons)