Austria Postpones Presidential Vote

Austria Postpones Presidential Vote

VIENNA (AP) -- A second attempt to elect Austria' president this year was postponed Monday, with the country's interior minister saying the move was dictated by the discovery that the envelopes of absentee ballots frequently could not be sealed because of faulty adhesive strips.

The delay still must be formalized through a still-to-be-created law. But in asking the government draft such legislation, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka effectively canceled plans to hold the vote Oct. 2.

The unprecedented development means that Austria will remain without a head of state for at least another month, and probably longer, after a decision on who will fill the position was already delayed earlier this year.

The presidency originally was to have been filled in July, after left-leaning contender Alexander Van der Bellen edged out Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party. But the country's highest court ordered a rerun after the Freedom Party claimed major irregularities.

Sobotka recommended that the vote now be pushed back either to Nov. 27 or Dec. 4, which he said would allow time for legislation to be drawn up and passed by parliament, as well as for printing and distributing new absentee ballots and envelopes.

"We cannot estimate how many and which of these ballots could open," Sobotka said of the faulty envelopes, adding that because the flaw raises the possibility the present ballots could be tampered with, "We cannot carry out proper elections."

The repeat election was ordered after the country's highest court ruled broadly in favor of the Freedom Party's irregularity claims. The claims included that absentee ballots from May voting were sorted before electoral commission officials arrived; that some officials stayed away during absentee vote counts, but signed documents saying they were present; and that some ballot envelopes were opened without authorization.

Judges also spoke of the possibility of individuals voting twice and of potential violations by the Interior Ministry, which released partial results under a publishing embargo to media, pollsters and other institutions.

The court decision was seen as a victory for the Freedom Party, giving it more time to exploit wide-spread anti-migrant sentiment in favor of its candidate. In recent weeks, polls have given Hofer a 4 to 6 percentage point edge over Van der Bellen.

Austria's president has mostly ceremonial responsibilities. A Hofer win, however, would boost not only his party but also far-right and nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe that all are lobbying for a weaker European Union or an outright exit from the bloc.

With no president now in office, the post's functions are being exercised by the three parliamentary presidents, one of whom is Hofer.

(KA)