Austrian Right Party Challenges Vote Results

     VIENNA (AP) — Austria’s right-wing party on Wednesday announced that it is legally challenging the result of last month’s presidential election due to what it said were a host of irregularities that potentially led to its candidate’s narrow loss.
     Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache spoke of a “massive number of irregularities and mistakes” that needed to be investigated.
     “We are not poor losers,” he told reporters, declaring that the challenge was launched to secure “the pillars of democracy.”
     Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was leading after polls closed May 22. But final results after a count of absentee ballots put former Green party politician Alexander Van der Bellen ahead by only a little more than 30,000 votes.
     The final count showed Van der Bellen with 50.3 percent, compared to 49.7 percent for Hofer.
     Strache said that the law was contravened in one way or the other in 97 of a total of 117 electoral districts, including the sorting of absentee ballots before the arrival of electoral commission officials. He said that of the more than 700,000 such ballots, more than 570,000 were affected.
     “Hofer could have become president without these irregularities and mistakes,” he said. “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to get an exceptionally bad gut feeling in the face of such mishaps or strange developments.”
     Hofer spoke of an “exorbitantly high” chance that his party’s initiative would be successful, describing the alleged irregularities as a “blatant violation of the law.”
     The challenge could result in at least a partial recount if Austria’s Constitutional Court rules in favor of the party. Freedom Party officials said the court was looking at three requests to probe the alleged irregularities — one from Strache, another from the party and a third from an unnamed “voter and citizen.”
     The outcome of the challenge has relevance beyond Austria’s borders, with elections viewed Europe-wide as a proxy fight pitting the continent’s political center against its growing populist and Euroskeptic movements.
     Van der Bellen’s win was cheered by the continent’s established parties, while Europe’s right hailed Hofer’s strong showing as a major political surge by one of its own.
     Associated Press video journalist Philipp Jenne contributed.
     Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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