By Clemens Schally
After a total of 12 years as President of Austria, Heinz Fischer is now required to step aside and cease his office in the Viennese Hofburg to someone else. What does that mean? You guessed right: Elections. You might also be almost right to think that electing someone to a purely representative office in a small state like Austria shouldn’t be too big a hassle. Well, think again.
In theory the election process is simple. A candidate needs a simple majority, fifty percent plus one vote, to get elected to office. Should no candidate reach that threshold in the first round of the election, the two strongest candidates face off in a second round, in which the stronger candidate by definition reaches this majority. Vive le Président.
Things however did not quite work out that well this time. The first round of the election still went according to protocol. So far so good. The two strongest candidates, (green eurofederalist professor of economics) Mr. van der Bellen and (scary extreme right nutcase) Mr. Hofer would face off in the run-off election end of May, which would determine the winner. Yet, to this day we do not have a new President.
“Austria had a designated President – for about a month, since the losing party, the Freedom Party, decided to challenge the election in the constitutional court”
What happened? After an extremely polarising election campaign, the people of Austria casted their ballots. When the first results came in, they revealed a race so tight, that it was impossible to recognise who would make the cut. Both candidates had gotten 50% of votes give or take a few thousand. The margin of error was too high to call a winner the same night, so the decision was brought by the postal votes, which were supposed to be counted the next morning. They revealed that van der Bellen had won by the small margin of 30.000 votes, less than one percent difference. Austria had a designated President – for about a month, since the losing party, the Freedom Party, decided to challenge the election in the constitutional court.
The case argued that because of a gross mishandling of the postal votes a possibility for manipulation was given. Ironically, the Freedom party de facto had to accuse many of their own officials, who had attended the counting of the ballots as overseers and had signed the protocols affirming correct counting. The process itself however revealed far bigger procedural errors. Not only did the original complaint that the postal ballots were counted earlier than procedurally allowed turn out to be true, a plethora of cases of officials completely ignoring procedure was revealed. Ignoring official instructions, counting votes without being allowed to or signing off protocols without having read them (or even having been present, strangely enough). A considerable amount of officials seemingly could just not be bothered to show up to their local electoral councils to oversee the process, yet still affirmed its correctness. Even higher up the court found severe ignorance of the law. Electoral authorities had passed on preliminary results to the public broadcasting agency before they were allowed to. While the court did not find any reasons to assume the manipulation of the results, they had to consider the mere possibility of manipulation as reason enough to order an annulment and subsequent repetition of the election. This was bound to happen on the 2nd of October.
End of the story? Of course not. Several weeks ago, the postal ballots for the repetition of the second round of the presidential elections were sent out. People started to fill them in and to send them off. Slowly however reports of malfunctioning ballots emerged. First one case, then a second then more and more until no doubt was left. A considerable part of postal ballots were not useable, since the glue closing keeping them shut after noting down your vote was faulty, leading to countless votes being invalidated after sending them off. Forced to react, the interior minister issued a press conference, first explaining the problem with the, as he embarrassingly called them, “high-tech ballots” and then announcing the postponement of the repetition of the second round of the 13th Presidential elections of the Austrian Republic. New date will be the 4th of December.
“A considerable part of postal ballots were not useable, since the glue closing keeping them shut after noting down your vote was faulty, leading to countless votes being invalidated after sending them off”
However not all is bad. In the most Austrian way possible, the culprit was found: The glue had been produced in Germany. Vaterland gerettet.