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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Philip Oltermann in Berlin

Austrian Social Democrats announce wrong leader after ‘technical error’

Andreas Babler giving a press conference on Monday
Andreas Babler, who in fact won the race, said on Monday the mistake in the counting process had been ‘painful’ for all those involved. Photograph: Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP/Getty Images

Austria’s Social Democratic party has admitted a “technical error” in an Excel file led to it announcing the wrong candidate as its new leader.

Officials at the centre-left SPÖ said on Monday that Andreas Babler, the mayor of the south-eastern city of Traiskirchen, had in fact won the race, and not Hans Peter Doskozil, the governor of the south-eastern Burgenland region, who had been declared the winner on Saturday.

“The ballots didn’t match the digitally announced result,” said the SPÖ’s electoral commissioner, Michaela Grubesa. “Because of a technical error in the Excel file the results were mixed up.”

The mistake had come to light only because a journalist had spotted a missing vote in the final result and raised the matter with the party’s electoral commission, prompting a recount, Austrian media reported.

The astonishing events come a year before parliamentary elections expected in the Alpine republic, which is currently governed by a coalition between the conservative People’s party (ÖVP) and the Greens.

Vying to replace the outgoing centrist leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, Babler – a 50-year-old former warehouse labourer, self-declared Marxist and longtime Eurosceptic – vowed to return Austria’s Social Democrats to their leftwing roots.

In an inner-party debate that focused less on policies than whether the centre-left should wear its values on its sleeves, 52-year-old Doskozil stood for a more rightwing positioning on issues such as immigration, promising to bring back voters who had switched to the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ).

Latest polls show the FPÖ in the lead, with the Social Democrats in either second or third place on around 21-24%.

Babler, a former member of his party’s Marxist-Leninist “Stamokap” wing, drew fire in the run-up to the party congress for a two-year-old video in which he had described the EU as “the most aggressive foreign policy alliance that ever existed” and “worse than Nato”. He described the EU as an “imperialist project with a few social standards”.

Confronted with the comments he had made during the Covid-19 pandemic, Babler said he did not advocate an Austrian exit from the bloc of nations but was in favour of a socially minded reform of the European treaties.

He told Austrian media in one interview: “I am a Marxist”, but said in a follow-up interview that he did not stand for concepts such as expropriations and a dictatorship of the proletariat.

Compared with its German sister party, Austria’s SPÖ is a relatively broad political church, which hasn’t faced a significant challenger to its left since the 1950s. The Austrian Communist party’s strong showing at Salzburg state elections in April, however, has received plenty of attention in the party.

“Babler’s victory increases the likelihood of a coalition between the ÖVP and the FPÖ after next year’s vote”, said Marcus How, a political consultant at the Vienna-based risk-advisory firm VE Insight.

“Austria’s political landscape is structurally right-leaning, which means that even if Babler could steal votes from the Greens and NEOS, it is hard to see how he will pull together a governing coalition.”

Unlike Doskozil, Babler has ruled out forming a “grand coalition” with Austria’s conservatives.

The party’s new leader said on Monday the mistake in the counting process had been “painful” for all those involved and that he wanted to work on the “complete comeback” of the SPÖ.

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