VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria on Monday delayed a re-run of a presidential election as faulty glue on postal ballots scuppered its second attempt to organise a ballot that could give the European Union its first far-right head of state.
The result of the first election in May, which Norbert Hofer of the anti-migrant Freedom Party (FPO) came within 31,000 votes of winning, had already been scrapped due to irregularities in counting the postal ballots - heightening the embarrassment.
The postal votes, which accounted for around 16 percent of the total votes, were the crucial factor for Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent, to win in May.
The postponement, to Dec. 4, drew swift criticism, with the FPO calling the government incapable of holding a vote and a commentator saying it had made Austria a subject of mockery.
In delaying the election from Oct. 2, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said on Monday there was a risk votes could be tampered with due to the faulty glue on a “defective envelope”.
The FPO’s secretary, Herbert Kickl, said it showed the government was “incapable of ensuring a proper election”.
The delay also put attention back on an election that has polarised opinion at home and across a continent where the impact of mass immigration driven by war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa is starting to dominate the debate.
Hofer’s near-victory in a country at the sharp end of the immigration crisis reflected a rising tide of populism in Europe that spread to Britain with June’s vote to quit the European Union - an outcome some believe will buoy support for him.
Opinion polls have given him the edge in the ballot for a role that is largely ceremonial.
A win for the FPO would be of huge symbolic significance in an anti-establishment political climate and with parliamentary elections due in 2018.
Asked at a news conference if the double setback might damage Austria’s reputation, Sobotka said: “The laugh is always on the loser.”
Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, won May’s vote by less than 1 percentage point from Hofer.
The FPO then successfully challenged the result in the constitutional court, citing procedural irregularities, forcing the re-run.
The delay was “unfortunate but correct”, van der Bellen told a news conference, urging supporters to “move on and win together on Dec. 4”.
For some, however, the prospect of another delay or contested result was too much.
“It’s terrible. I really wonder if it’s worth bothering to vote again, if we even need a president,” 50-year-old office worker Margit Freudenthaler said.
Independent political consultant Thomas Hofer said: “A democracy that had been portrayed as stable and a bulwark against crisis now shows itself not even able to organise elections properly.
“Once again, Austria is a laughing stock.”
However, political analyst Peter Filzmaier said that, while the postponement was an embarrassment, discovery of the faulty ballot forms had left the government with no other option.
“The alternative would have been to go with open eyes into a vote that was unlawful,” he said, adding that Monday’s decision strengthened Austria’s democratic credentials.
Writing by John Stonestreet; Editing by Alison Williams