VIENNA Austria's Interior Ministry said on Friday it was considering postponing the re-run of a presidential election that is scheduled for Oct. 2 on technical grounds after ballot papers for postal voting turned out to be damaged.
The election was originally held in May but the Constitutional Court ordered a repeat poll after the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) successfully challenged the result.
Its candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost that vote to former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen but has led in recent opinion polls.
"If an apparent failure in production makes it impossible to properly conduct the election, then it is my duty as the highest-ranking executive of the electoral authority to immediately consider a postponement," Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said in an emailed statement.
An Interior Ministry spokeswoman said a decision was expected early next week.
Over the past days several eligible voters from cities including Vienna and Salzburg have complained about damaged ballot papers.
Around 500 damaged papers have been detected so far, according to daily Die Presse, although how they were damaged is unclear. The printing company KBPrintcom, which was commissioned by the interior ministry, declined to comment on the issue.
Experts have warned that the results of the Oct. 2 election could be challenged again. If a ballot paper becomes invalid without any fault of the voter "that would be surely a reason for contesting the election if there is a narrow result", political analyst Peter Filzmaier said.
An FPO spokesman said the party was relaxed about the issue. "We assume that the election will be run properly," he said. "We do not wish for another challenge."
Van der Bellen called for a prompt clarification of the situation late on Thursday. Every eligible voter must be able to rely on their vote being counted, he told broadcaster ORF.
Van der Bellen has been catching up in the race but is still behind his anti-immigration rival, according to an opinion poll by researcher Gallup.
The former professor, perceived as the intellectuals' representative, has been travelling to public festivals and fairs in recent weeks seeking support from farmers and blue-collar workers.
A poll of 600 people on September 7/8, published by the Oesterreich tabloid on Friday, showed the average support for Van der Bellen at 48 percent, one point higher than a poll in late August, versus 52 percent for the Freedom Party's (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer.
Concerns about security and national identity as well as dissatisfaction with traditional, more centrist parties, have fuelled support for the FPO as well as the Front National in France and the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Catherine Evans and Dominic Evans)