Austria will have to repeat its presidential election because ballots and voting results were handled improperly, the Constitutional Court ruled Friday, in a historic decision that hands a second chance at the job to far-right candidate Norbert Hofer.
Hofer's Freedom Party uncovered the irregularities and demanded the rerun of the May run-off election, which Hofer narrowly lost to Green contender Alexander Van der Bellen by a margin of only 31,000 ballots.
"Even though we live in a stable democracy, thank God, the meticulous application of voting procedures guarantees the confidence of citizens in correct elections and democracy as a whole," said the court's president, Gerhart Holzinger.
The new run-off election between Van der Bellen and Hofer will likely take place in late September or early October, outgoing President Heinz Fischer said.
Van der Bellen accepted the verdict and confirmed that he would run again.
"Of course I stand for this run-off election, and I intend to win it a second time," he told reporters.
He said he was optimistic that the broad range of voters encompassing many political views and social groups that had supported him in May would once again rally to him and carry him to victory.
Van der Bellen's narrow win in May had been met with a collective sigh of relief among Europe's centrist parties across Europe, who were worried that a victory by Hofer would further boost anti-immigration and eurosceptic forces across the continent.
Those fears are only exacerbated now after an anti-Europe wave allowed the Leave campaign to win in Britain last week, meaning the country is set to exit the European Union in the coming years.
"I am happy that the Constitutional Court has come to an objective decision in this very, very difficult case," Hofer said.
When Fischer's term ends on July 8, the parliament's presidential committee will take over his job temporarily. Hofer is a deputy president of parliament and is, therefore, part of this committee.
"I will clearly separate between my parliamentary job and my election campaign," Hofer said.
The Freedom Party had alleged that ballots from citizens who had voted outside their home town or who had sent in postal votes had been handled incorrectly in many voting districts.
The court found that this was the case in 14 districts and affected some 78,000 absentee ballots, even though it stressed that it had received no evidence for election fraud.
"There is no need for proof of actual tampering," Holzinger said.
The court has the duty to order a rerun even if there was only the possibility for fraud, he explained.
However, the Freedom Party said after the verdict that the absence of proof for fraud did not mean that no fraud was committed.
"The ruling did not say that there was no manipulation," Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache insisted.
The court also ruled illegal the Interior Ministry's long-standing practice of sending embargoed local ballot results to media and polling institutes before all polling stations have closed.
This was the second reason why the election would have to be repeated, Holzinger said.
For the new election, the Interior Ministry plans to improve legal training for the volunteers who make up the election commissions, and will also stop issuing preliminary results, Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said.
In addition, Austria will request election monitors of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to oversee voting in the districts where irregularities occurred, he announced.