- - Thursday, September 29, 2016

VIENNA — Austrian voters with a global reputation for tidiness and efficiency are losing faith in the electoral process. The culprit? Envelopes that won’t stay closed.

Red-faced election officials have called off Sunday’s planned presidential vote over fears that someone might tamper with absentee ballots whose envelopes lack enough adhesive to seal, raising the risk of tampering and fraud.

Now postponed to Dec. 4, the election was itself a rerun of a spring national vote that was declared invalid after the razor-thin result could not be confirmed amid accusations of vote-rigging. That vote in May, furthermore, was the second round in Austria’s presidential election, meaning Austrians are now preparing to cast ballots for their head of state for the third time.

The false starts and misfires have left many Austrians fed up with politics and the seemingly endless campaign season.

“Recent events have made Austrian voters lose faith in the political system,” said Fritz Jergitsch, publisher of Die Tagespresse, a political satire website. “People are getting tired of voting.”



The faulty envelope debacle has played out as farce, but the stakes are deadly serious. Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, who tempers his party’s hard-line platform with an easy manner and ready smile, almost won the aborted vote in May, vaulting Austria once again to the center of a Continent-wide debate over migration, xenophobia and terrorism.

As refugees flooded the European Union from Syria, Afghanistan and other world crisis spots, a record 90,000 people applied for asylum last year in Austria, one of the highest levels per capita in Europe. The influx has strained social services and sparked security fears, and a survey released late last week found that the number of attacks on Austrian refugee centers was projected to double this year.

Austria’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but Mr. Hofer would be Europe’s first far-right head of state since 1945. His rise to prominence is part of a nationalist wave that has swept over Europe amid a rise of anti-refugee and anti-EU sentiments.

Many Austrians vowed to vote for or against Mr. Hofer to send a larger message about those bigger issues, and polls say the vote — whenever it is held — is too close to predict.

“This campaign is completely different from anything else we have had in Austria ever before,” said Stefan Sengl, an independent election analyst who managed the successful 2010 presidential re-election campaign for Heinz Fischer. “Starting from the candidates who made it into the final round and ending with its very length.”

Mr. Hofer, 45, of the Euroskeptic anti-immigrant Freedom Party, or FPO, appeared at first to win the May vote, but elections officials then declared Alexander Van der Bellen, a former chairman of the leftist Green Party running as an independent*, after postal votes were added up the following day.

The Freedom Party immediately went to court and complained that unauthorized people handled and tampered with the ballots, potentially stripping Mr. Hofer of victory. A court agreed, and another presidential vote was scheduled for Oct. 2.

Then the real follies began.

On Sept. 12, election officials announced that they would not be able to hold the Oct. 2 election because of insufficiently sticky adhesive strips on a tiny number of absentee ballots, making them susceptible to tampering. So unprecedented was the decision to postpone an election that parliament had to hurriedly pass a special law to permit the delay.

“The events tell us a lot about Austria,” said Mr. Jergitsch. “The repetition of the presidential poll has to be moved because of 100 envelopes. This is ridiculous. In other countries, people would have said, ‘Just go to the municipality and ask for a new envelope.’ But in Austria, people take law and order very seriously.”

Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of Austrian politics at the University of Salzburg, said officials were overly concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit. “The laws in this country are so complicated they just cannot be implemented properly, and the elections are a prime example,” he said.

Meanwhile, voters are clearly frustrated.

‘Debasing democracy’

“I’m disappointed,” said Adam Bezeczky, a Viennese marketing manager. “No election anywhere in the world is free of problems, and here in Austria the system used to work just fine. The Freedom Party was OK with it while they were winning, but now the entire process is in question. It’s debasing democracy.”

Though the postponement means another two months of expensive and tiring campaigning, both candidates reacted calmly to the news. The unusual vote pitted parties at opposite ends of the spectrum because candidates of the mainstream center-left and center-right parties failed to make the runoff.

Mr. Van der Bellen, in particular, had good reason to be happy. His short-lived victory in May was made possible thanks to some 31,000 postal ballots.

Campaigning matters in Austria. Turnout at the first round of presidential voting in April was a healthy 72 percent. People have been eager for change, too. The race between Mr. Hofer and Mr. Van der Bellen marks an end to the centrist duopoly that has dominated Austria — and the president’s post — since World War II.

The prolonged campaign has taken its toll on the candidates, too.

Mr. Hofer has campaigned in support of an imminent Austrian exit from the European Union and a no-compromise stance on refugees. But developments have complicated his appeal to voters. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has made Austria’s exit less attractive, and Brussels’ deal with Turkey and Greece has reduced the flow of refugees into Europe. As a result, Mr. Hofer has toned down his campaign, but he is still appealing to nationalist, conservative voters.

Mr. Van der Bellen, on the other hand, relied heavily on urban voters from his former Green Party base to overcome Mr. Hofer in May. But now that mainstream conservative candidates are no longer in the running, he is trying to extend his appeal to the rural heartland by popping up at traditional folk festivals.

Although the Freedom Party could be on the verge of a historic breakthrough, even its members express frustration and disillusion over the state of affairs. While still rooting for Mr. Hofer, Kurt Fritz Otto Josef von Lichtenstein, a party member since 2004, said he believed Austrian politics was in crisis.

“The government just isn’t doing its job properly. But I also don’t agree with all FPO statements and policies, and there were moments when I thought of quitting,” he said, adding that he will not be voting for the party in the next general election because he doesn’t trust FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache. “He is not ready.”

Mr. Sengl said he will be thinking one thing when he enters a polling booth in December: Let’s get it over with.

“It’s really hard to motivate yourself to go again and again,” he said, “but we need a president.”

*The original story misstated Mr. Van der Bellen’s official party affiliation on the ballot. It has been corrected.

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