Austria to re-run presidential election after results challenged by far-right candidate who narrowly lost

Norbert Hofer, who is pro-gun and anti-immigrant, lost to former Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen by less than half a percentage point

Right-wing Austrian Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer
Right-wing Austrian Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer

Austria's highest court has annulled the result of the presidential electons which took place last month after a challenge by the right-wing Freedom Party.

Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party's presidential candidate, lost the election to former Green Party politician Alexander Van der Bellen by 30,863 votes – less than half a percentage point.

The election will be re-run this autumn after an objection to the result was raised by the Freedom Party, who said postal votes had been improperly handled.

Mr Hofer, 45, who ran a pro-gun, anti-immigrant campaign, picked up nearly half of the vote amid widespread dissatisfaction with Austria's main political parties.

The former aeronautical engineer is said to have carried a Glock pistol with him on the campaign trail, declaring the public should arm themselves as a logical reaction to the refugee crisis.

But Mr Van der Bellen, 72, a radical environmentalist whose parents are refugees, won with 50.35 per cent of the vote after postal votes were counted.

Austria election highlights anti-immigrant mood

The second round of the Austrian presidential elections, which take place every six years, was held on 22 May.

Mr Hofer's loss to independent candidate Mr Van der Bellen marked the first time since the Second World War an Austrian president had not been backed by either of the establishment centrist parties, the Social Democrats or the People's Party.

The Constitutional Court upheld the Freedom Party's claim that the law was contravened in some way in most of the 117 electoral districts, including the sorting of absentee ballots before electoral commission officials arrived.

“The challenge brought by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache against the 22 May election ... has been upheld,” announced Gerhard Holzinger, head of Austria's Constitutional Court.

"Only the total adherence to electoral standards secures the citizens’ trust in our democracy,” he said.

If Mr Hofer wins the re-runs of the election, he would become the European Union's first far-right head of state.

Growing support for the Freedom Party, which was founded in 1956 by former Nazis, reflects disillusionment with the Austrian government's response to Europe's refugee crisis.

Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers in 2015 – more than one per cent of its population – but has since clamped down on the number of people allowed to enter the country.

"Those, it has to be said, those who do not value our country, who fight for Islamic State, or who rape women, I say to these people: this is not your homeland. You cannot stay in Austria,” Mr Hofer told supporters in Vienna at his final rally before the election.

The Austrian president is a largely ceremonial post, but a victory for Mr Hofer could lead the Freedom Party to success in the next parliamentary elections, due in 2018.

Outsider parties have seen a rise in support across Europe, with Virginia Raggi, a candidate from Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement, declaring victory in Rome's recent mayoral elections.

In the wake of Britain's recent vote to leave the European Union, a win by eurosceptic Mr Hofer would boost not only his party but kindred movements in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere lobbying for less EU power or outright exits from the bloc.

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