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Austria's Highest Court Overturns Presidential Election Results


FILE - Norbert Hofer, right, candidate of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, talks to Alexander Van der Bellen (L) candidate of the Austrian Greens during the release of the first election results of the Austria presidential elections in Vienna, Austria, April 24, 2016.

Austria’s highest court has overturned the results of presidential election, citing procedural irregularities and ordered a rerun to be held in September or October, an unprecedented decision in the country's post-war history.

The final vote count showed former Green Party politician, ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly ahead of anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) candidate, Eurosceptic Norbert Hofer 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent.

After the British referendum to depart from the European Union, some fear that a win by Hofer would encourage similar movements in Austria and beyond.

Jeffrey Rathke, a deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told VOA Hofer’s win would only have an impact in Austria and it would boost support for his party in the next parliamentary elections.

Since the president holds a largely ceremonial post in Austria, Rathke said, and does not have policy-making authority, a comparison with Brexit is wrong.

The exit polls in May showed the 45-year-old Hofer leading, but final results after a count of absentee ballots put the 72-year-old Van der Bellen ahead by a margin of little more than 30,000 votes.

The FPO said that the law had been contravened in one way or another in most of the 117 electoral districts and challenged the result in the Constitutional Court.

The court found no evidence the result was manipulated, but said that various rule violations on the counting procedure were sufficiently serious and widespread for the May 22 voting to be declared null and void.

Announcing the court’s decision, Chief Judge Gerhart Holzinger said it had only one aim, strengthening trust in the rule of law and democracy.

"The procedure in front of the constitutional court revealed that the federal election authority on election day, on May 22 of this year, from around 1 p.m. -- in other words before polls closed -- systematically passed on election results electronically to selected recipients, especially the media and polling institutes," he said. "This publication violates the policy of a free election."

Holzinger said the court called for a rerun because the irregularities potentially affected nearly 78,000 votes, more than twice the margin separating the two candidates.

The lawyer for the FPO and former justice minister, Dieter Boehmdorfer, said the court ruling was not a “democracy decisive issue.”

"If there is a clean-up it's a benefit and not a damage," said the lawyer. "Nothing happened. This was not an election on the EU, this was an important, but not a democracy decisive issue, not something that decided the fate of the country. But it was an important election. And now there is the demand by the constitutional court to obey election laws in future."

If elected, Hofer will become the first far-right head of state in the European Union.

Until the rerun the Austrian presidency will be run jointly by the country's three parliamentary presidents, one of whom is Hofer.