Austria's presidential election was already considered a disaster. It was declared invalid in July after reports of irregularities in handling absentee votes. And after finally agreeing on an October date for repeating the election, the country is likely to reschedule again.
In the latest twist, the glue on postal vote envelopes has become unstuck in several cases, making them fall apart and possibly susceptible to tampering. A scientific research institute was tasked with examining the problems last week, throwing the scheduled Oct. 2 redo election into doubt.
The mess has at least one group smiling: Austria's far-right Freedom Party. Its candidate narrowly lost during the initial election in May. He now gets another shot — with his backers hoping to ride the coattails of voter swings toward the right across Europe.
"I can only apologize to the Austrian people for the technical shortcomings," Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said Friday, when the envelope problems were first made public.
On Monday, Sobotka said more time was needed to sort out the envelope woes. The delay still needs formal approval, but his announcement was seen as effectively canceling next month's planned re-vote.
“We cannot estimate how many and which of these ballots could open,” Sobotka said of the faulty envelopes, the Associated Press reported. "We cannot carry out proper elections.”
Government officials have indicated that the vote might now take place in early December.
The editor in chief of the Austrian edition of the newspaper NZZ called the country a "banana republic" after the first vote was nullified. A further rescheduling would make matters even worse.
As the president's office remains vacant, a committee of several representatives is filling the void.
In Austria, the chancellor heads the government and makes most political decisions, leaving the president with relatively few powers. The president can, however, sway the general political agenda. This is why European establishment politicians are increasingly worried that far-right candidate Norbert Hofer could be elected in the second round.
"If Hofer, in the end, is the winner, it may have cascading consequences," Reinhard Heinisch, head of political science at the University of Salzburg in Austria, told The Washington Post's Anthony Faiola in July. "The Austrian government could fall, and it would be seen as a further indication that Europe is fraying not just around the edges, but increasingly at its center."
Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party member who ran as an independent, was elected president in May with a narrow lead over Hofer — a margin of about 30,000 votes in a country of 8.5 million. But Van der Bellen's opponents argued that the alleged mishandling of the absentee votes could have changed the result significantly. The country's high court consequently ordered a new vote.
The uncertainty over Austria's political future has frustrated younger voters disillusioned with the country's shift to the right, but it has also fueled a perception that Austrian politics is a source of embarrassment rather than of inspiration.
"Austria seems to find out that holding elections is unfeasible," one man wrote on Twitter.
"The real state of emergency is that we in Austria are unable to hold elections according to the rules," another Austrian commentator argued.
Previous incidents have contributed to the self-criticism some Austrians have recently voiced.
In 2014, the country made international headlines when the disappearance of 400 gnomes caused an election scandal in the mountainous state of Vorarlberg. Fearing a defeat, the left-wing Social Democratic Party had ordered 20,000 gnomes called "Coolmen," toting sunglasses and campaign signs, costing $600,000, roughly a third of its campaign resources.
About 400 of the gnomes were attached to lampposts as alternatives to traditional posters, but when all of them suddenly disappeared, the Social Democrats accused their main rival, OeVP, of stealing them. The OeVP denied those allegations, but suspicions persisted. The election campaign subsequently focused on the details of the alleged mass theft.
Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.