By Anton Troianovski Updated Sept. 12, 2016 11:58 a.m. ET
Three weeks before a scheduled presidential election that could install postwar Austrias first right-wing populist head of state, the countrys top elections official said the vote needed to be postponed.
The reason: Defective glue has been causing some mail-in ballot envelopes to open, rendering the vote inside invalid.
I must acknowledge that a ballot-card production error is the reason why we cannot guarantee an election that is irreproachably in conformity with the law, said Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, who oversees elections, in a news conference in Vienna on Monday. We cannot estimate today how many and which of these ballot cards could still open.
Mr. Sobotka said he would submit a bill to parliament on Tuesday to postpone the vote until Dec. 4.
It was the latest embarrassment for the Alpine countrys government, which has been struggling to execute a closely watched election.
The runoff vote for the mainly ceremonial post of president had been scheduled for Oct. 2, pitting center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen against Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party. Mr. Hofer, propelled by a popular backlash against the centrist governments handling of the refugee crisis, has been running about even with Mr. Van der Bellen in the polls.
Mr. Van der Bellen beat Mr. Hofer by just over 30,000 votes in a runoff election on May 22. In July, the countrys Constitutional Court ordered a rerun because of improprieties in how some mail-in ballots were processed. But in recent days, reports emerged in Austrian media that some mail-in ballot envelopes for the rescheduled vote were defective, raising the prospect of yet another bungled election.
If a well-developed and modern democracy such as the one in Austria isn't able to guarantee regular elections, then it is anything but funny, journalist Michael Vlker wrote in Der Standard newspaper on Sunday.
One could take this glue fiasco as a symbol of what Austria needs now: to stick together, Mr. Van der Bellen said later Monday.
The governments acknowledgment of problems with mail-in ballots could, however, energize supporters of Mr. Hofer and his Freedom Partys anti-establishment campaign.
This government is not even able to conduct a lawful, timely, and proper election, Freedom Party Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache said on his Facebook page. Austria is being embarrassed by this government.
Mr. Sobotka addressed the news media Monday alongside Franz Lang, director of the Federal Criminal Agency, Austrias version of the FBI. The agency has found no signs of foul play but continues to investigate, Mr. Lang said.
We must still examine a number of defective ballot envelopes, Mr. Lang said.
A company that printed the ballots for more than a dozen previous elections in Austria produced the defective envelopes, Mr. Sobotka said. Another company, sterreichische Staatsdruckerei, will now print new ballots with a simpler envelope design that was used until 2008, pending parliamentary approval of the new law.
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