Austrian conspiracy theorists have had a bumper year in 2016.
First, in the April 24 presidential election, the frontrunning candidate of Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer, who many said was virtually guaranteed to become the central European country’s first “right-wing” president, mysteriously lost when some 31,000 mailed-in ballots tipped the vote against him in the last second, handing the election to his far more moderate, and pro-European challenged, Van der Bellen. Hofer’s defeat sparked widespread relief across the ranks of Europe’s unlected establishment bureaucrats, as his victory would mark yet another significant moment in the advance of nationalism across EU member states. As Newsweek put it, “in the wake of Brexit, it would be seen as another defeat for the European political establishment.”
Accusations immediately emerged that the vote had been rigged, with the traditional response that these are merely the deranged ramblings of sore loser “nationalists.” Only… that was not the case, and in July Austria’s Constitutional Court ruled that the presidential runoff election must be held again, after it found “widespread” voting fraud, handing yet another victory to “conspiracy theorists” everywhere.
Then, following the surge in terrorist attacks in France and Germany in July, an August Gallup polls showed that Hofer’s lead over his opponent Van der Belden had continued to grow, showing the midpoint of the wide range of support for Hofer at 52 percent—one point higher than a poll in early July—versus 48 percent for Van der Bellen.
At this point the establishment was clearly panicking, which may have indirectly led to the lastest fiasco surrounding what has already become the most scandalous presidential election in recent European history, an election that has little practical – but dramatic and widespread symbolic – value for Europe.
As AFP reports, it is now virtually certain that the election scheduled for October 2, and which Hofer will not lose this time, will not be held after all, as an “embarrassing postponement of Austria’s high-stakes October 2 presidential election looked all but inevitable Saturday, because of technical problems involving glue failing to stick on postal votes.”
In the wake of the abovementioned May presidential election, which was annulled after Austria’s highest court upheld claims of procedural irregularities made by the narrowly-defeated far-right, a new election had been scheduled for October 2. This necessitated fresh elections but this time there appear to be… problems with glue on postal votes not sticking, making them invalid.
On Saturday independent ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen joined his rival in the vote, Norbert Hofer from the far-right, in saying he now expects a postponement.
“I don’t believe that October 2 is possible any more,” Van der Bellen, 72, told a news conference. “I hope that (the new election) can still take place this year.” But they may not… because the glue on the same postal votes that were used to rig the last election is “no longer sticking.”
Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka meanwhile made his clearest indication yet of a postponement, saying that “it does not look like” the problems can be resolved in time. He is due to make an announcement on Monday.
According to local media, the October election may now not even take place in 2016: Die Presse daily cited unnamed sources as saying that the government was looking at several possible dates in November, but that mid-December or even January were being considered.
Pushing the election back poses legal problems, however, and the government is considering drawing up special legislation allowing it to happen.
Some called this farce for what it is: “this is an unbelievable disgrace for… the whole country,” Die Presse said in an editorial entitled “Banana Republic”.
Meanwhile Hofer, 45, officially launched his election campaign in Wels in northern Austria despite the likely postponement, hitting out at the “stupidity” of allowing mass immigration by “economic migrants”. The May 22 vote, a run-off after a first round in April, saw Van der Bellen narrowly beat Hofer by just 31,000 votes. The FPOe has stoked concerns about recent record immigration, and should Hofer eventually win it would make Austria the first country in Europe since 1945 to elect a nationalist president, and unleash even more anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe just in time for the all important French presidential elections where National Front’s Marine le Pen has a substantial advantage.
As reported before, the role of the Austrian president is largely ceremonial, but a victory by Hofer – symbolic as it may be – would be a major boost to Europe’s other surging populist movements.
And now the “conspiracy theorists” can come up with alternative, and has been the case, correct, explanations for what really happened.