This July 1st, the Friday one week after Britain’s voters demanded it leave the European Union, something happened in Austria which threatens to create uproar. This unfolding scandal might easily dwarf pro-EU propaganda efforts to smear and intimidate Leave voters in the Brexit referendum.
Austria’s Constitutional Court announced that the result of its May presidential election was null and void. Although Austria’s president is a largely ceremonial post, it does bring the power to trigger elections. More importantly, the whole country is talking about why the president will have to be chosen again.
A decade ago I had an occasional job teaching English to children in Austrian villages. While getting them out of the classroom into the sunshine I would lead groups of 12-year-olds through small town squares. We would look at Renaissance plague monuments: the further from Vienna we were the larger proportion of the girls in the class who curtsied and crossed themselves on entering the local church. We could sometimes taste local wines from children’s parents’ vineyards, and (if our teacher group was lucky in the choice of town that week) gaze up at some smaller and greener Alps standing guard over the valley. I would practise my Julie Andrews impersonation, getting my students to sing “Doe, a deer, a female deer …..Tea, a drink with jam and bread!” as we crocodiled down the mediaeval main street. What I never imagined was that Austria might once again be the place, as so often before, where the future of Europe decisively shifts.
In the presidential election six weeks before on May 22nd, Austria’s Green candidate narrowly defeated the Freedom Party candidate by 31,000 postal votes. The total of over 700,000 postal ballots reflected a curiously different political slant to that seen in the country at large. The country’s Constitutional Court upheld complaints by the nationalist (or ultranationalist / extreme-xenophobic, depending on who you listen to) Freedom Party that irregularities and rule-breaches had marred the counting process.
Polls up to the last minute were predicting a win for the Freedom Party. This was the successor party to the nationalist, anti-immigration party of the same name led by the controversial Joerg Haider before his death in a car crash in October 2008 while driving alone to see his mother for her 90th birthday. Haider led the Freedom Party at the end of the 1990s, then split it by creating a new party, and since his death it has reformed. Haider’s widow publicly said she suspected foul play in her late husband’s death, and pulled his body from a cremation for a second autopsy to check if unusual drugs had been present in his body. Persistent rumours that the late Haider was homosexual and had male lovers were ruled by a court in October 2009 unpublishable in Austria because they violated the dead man’s family’s privacy rights.
This year’s Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer had won the first round of the election by a surprising margin, had continued to lead up to the close of polls, and then lost the May 22nd vote in an unexpected upset. Loud sighs of relief from Brussels emphasised the nastiness of the party’s nationalism. More pertinent is that many Austrian voters are angry with Angela Merkel’s invitation to a million refugees (some Syrian, many not) to capitalise on their fait accompli entry into EU Schengen space. A victory for Hofer would have given those voters a formidable voice to challenge the EU establishment.
Intriguingly, the court decision that the election was indeed not correctly conducted and must be reheld this autumn did not recommend an investigation of the vote-counting irregularities. This raised some eyebrows among German-speaking East European lawyers familiar with Austrian law. One Austria-watcher told me this was a tacit admission that there had been some kind of organised cheating to enable the 72-year-old Green candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, to scrape a narrow win with 50.3 % of the vote. Hofer was quick on the night of the count to be gracious, concede defeat, and urge his party colleagues to accept the surprise result. They didn’t though. It was legal challenges by Freedom Party members that led to July 1st’s Constitutional Court decision.
Refusal to demand an investigation suggests the court is striving to stay non-political. It is nevertheless quite striking that accidental, unplanned voting irregularities could by chance swing such a controversial election. There was a strong sense in Austria and surrounding countries that a great deal was riding on this election, that powerful EU members were in a state approaching panic at the prospect of a Freedom Party election victory (even if in a largely symbolic political post) in a country seriously riled by EU migration policy, and that “civilised people” felt the party once led by the late Haider must be stopped at all costs.
Rumours around the car-crash death in 2008 of the colourful Haider included possible secret cash donations from several Islamic dictators as well as allegations of involvement by Israel, naturally concerned by a borderline Nazi sympathiser reaching high office in Austria. Earlier in 1999 and 2000 other EU member countries had pointedly ostracised Haider and other Freedom Party officials, feeling it was important to show unanimous disapproval of a blood-and-soil-nationalist party holding power in a European Union territory.
Both of Haider’s parents were active Nazis in the Second World War – Haider on several occasions referred to Nazi and SS soldiers as “decent people”. In contrast, the 45-year-old Hofer, from a younger generation, does not carry quite the same personal stigma as the late Haider. However any EU response to the Freedom Party winning another election almost two decades later in May 2016 would presumably have been similar. This EU response will be tested when the presidential vote is reheld in September or October. Given widespread anger in some countries (including Slovakia, holding the six-month EU presidency) about Angela Merkel’s encouragement last year to the large number of Muslim refugees pushed into Europe by Turkey, this time any EU criticism of a Freedom Party Austrian president is unlikely to be unanimous.
I’m keen to hear, on or off-record, in German or English, from any Austrians who have any information about how those extra postal votes changed May’s elections, and what kinds of irregularities occurred. There are two concerns touching the very heart of European Union federalism coming up within weeks. Whether there was systematic dishonesty in the Austrian election in May (and if so, organised by whom), and whether the EU will muster any kind of legitimate post-election protest at a probable Freedom Party victory this autumn.
These two fuses, burning over the next 2 months, will make Brexit look like a budget continental breakfast compared to Austria’s full English.
Mark Griffith keeps a weblog at http://www.otherlanguages.org