The UK referendum on leaving or remaining in the EU is now just two days away, and according to all forecasts the outcome on this divisive topic is going to be very narrow. Let us just hope that the Brits are more capable than the Austrians to organize a democratic vote. It may be worthwhile for them to follow with close attention the hearing that is currently going on before the Constitutional Court in Vienna.
Obviously, the media and the mainstream political parties are very unhappy at the prospect of handing this victory to the right-wing Freiheitliche Partei (Freedom Party, FPÖ), whose candidate Norbert Hofer has lost the second round of the elections for Federal President by a margin of just 31.000 votes to his left-wing opponent Alexander Van der Bellen, and who now are contesting the outcome of this vote on the ground of alleged irregularities in the handling of so-called absentee votes (i.e. votes by correspondence). But the hearing of witnesses by the Constitutional Court has so far overwhelmingly confirmed the alleged irregularities, and revealed a generally very careless attitude of the electoral commissions – both of public servants involved in the vote counting and of electoral assessors who represent the various political groups. As it appears, legal provisions that are there to exclude the possibility of manipulations have not been complied with, and assessors seem to have signed pre-fabricated protocols that confirm the lawfulness of the handling of votes without even having read what they were signing. “We have always done it like this, and no one has ever complained – so why should we have done it differently this time?” is the justification nearly all of them are giving to the Court.
But the difference between this vote and previous elections (where, as one may suspect, the same procedural irregularities have been committed) is that the outcome of these previous votes was less narrow, and that the role of the votes by correspondence (whose counting poses particular procedural burdens) never played such a decisive role, given that prior to the counting of these votes Mr. Hofer was in the lead.
To be sure, there are neither any suspicions, nor even any allegations, that there was any plot to falsify the outcome of the vote. But it seems undeniable that rules that are in place to make manipulations impossible have been breached – and they appear to have been breached at a large scale, by far exceeding the number of 16.000 votes that might have determined the outcome. If these rules have been breached, this means that a fraud was possible, and that there is no means to prove that it hasn’t taken place. This is sufficient to make a repetition of the vote inevitable if Austria wants to remain serious about its status as a democracy.