Yesterday, Austria’s constitutional court annulled the presidential elections that were held on May 22nd. These elections led – with a mere 0,6% difference – to a victory for the Green Party-backed independent candidate Alexander van der Bellen over the populist right-wing candidate Norbert Hofer. If Hofer had won, it would have been the first time that a populist right-wing politician would become the President of Austria, which many (including me) see as a worrying sign of the way European politics has been developing (and this was all pre-Brexit!).
I’ve been dealing with an inner-ear infection and haven’t had the energy to read very widely on the web, but am struggling with a question to which I couldn’t find the answer. So let me ask that question here, since our readers who are knowledgable about Austrian politics may be able to enlighten me.
The irregularities that have been reported are formal irregularities – such as ballots being counted before the election observers were present, or the postal ballots from citizens living abroad being counted on election day, whereas they should only be counted the next day. However, according to the reporting in The Guardian,
While the court emphasised that there was no evidence of the outcome of the election having been actively manipulated, the confirmed irregularities had affected a total of 77,926 votes that could have gone to either Hofer or Van der Bellen – enough, in theory, to change the outcome of the election.
So, if I understood this correctly, there is no evidence of fraud in the voting itself. The irregularities are related to the insufficient respect for the formal rules when counting the votes. There is no evidence that fake ballots have been added, or ballots have been removed, or any such thing. I don’t see any reporting that the irregularities would have made a difference to the outcome, but I can understand that, as the President of the Constitutional court mentioned, that it is of utter importance that the people have faith in the electoral process.
But would the solution then not simply be to recount the votes? What is the reason that rules out this much more straightforward, fairer and less costly alternative to a complete new presidential election?
And there is also the question what the effect will be of an election being annulled if there is evidence of some formal rules not being strictly followed: if that is sufficient to annul an election (rather than to merely have a recount of the votes), it seems to incentivise losing political parties to turn more quickly to the constitutional court to ask for new elections. This may lead to political instabilities and political opportunism – both of which we can do without.