Election Excel blunder declared a 'low point' for Austrian social democracy

Next time you mess up a spreadsheet, take heart that you didn't destroy someone's political hopes and dreams

To Austria now, where the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) has shown that Excel blunders can have severely career-limiting effects.

The center-left group ran the election for its new leader over the weekend, a closely run affair between Burgenland governor Hans Peter Doskozil and Traiskirchen mayor Andreas Babler.

Some 600 members cast their votes at the party conference in Linz on Saturday and so it was that Doskozil clinched victory with 53 percent share to Babler's 47.

But the celebrations were short-lived. By Monday, the Austrian electoral commission had hurriedly called a press conference. There it was declared that the results were the wrong way round – Babler had won.

How? Election director Michaela Grubesa didn't quite seem to know, but blamed a "technical error by a colleague with an Excel table" while the voting data was being transferred into a spreadsheet. "The result was reversed," she said.

The error was detected after a recount because a journalist noticed a vote was missing from the final result. Having declared that vote invalid, it was also discovered that the totals were wrongly assigned.

Grubesa contacted Babler with the awkward news yesterday afternoon, and the newly minted party leader wasn't impressed. "It is crucial that no question marks remain here so that we can move forward with certainty. I expect absolute transparency and clarity," he said.

If the result survives further scrutiny, he'd assume leadership of the party, local daily newspaper Kurier reported.

"I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart for the image that parts of our apparatus have presented in recent weeks," Babler added. "Once this is over, I will work with my team on the complete comeback of social democracy," he said, pledging to restore the party's "pride and dignity."

Meanwhile, in Doskozil's camp, the situation was even gloomier. "I did not expect to stand here before you in this way and in this role this morning," he told a subsequent press conference. "This is undoubtedly to some extent a low point for Austrian social democracy," he said, while insisting that the result "must be acknowledged."

"I would like to congratulate Andreas Babler on winning this election and becoming the federal party leader."

Doskozil said the focus must now be on rebuilding the party to win elections next year. "There will be ridicule and mockery, and we have to accept that. But there will also be better times for social democracy," he added, before declaring that his "chapter of federal politics is definitively closed."

Ouch. Grubesa apologized for the mixup and took responsibility for there not being a vote check after the party conference. No one on the commission, including herself, requested it, she said. "From my perspective, the entire process is verifiable."

Left-wing politics aren't particularly popular in Austria right now, which makes Babler an interesting choice of leader (if he really did win, that is). The center-right Austrian People's Party formed a coalition government with The Greens in 2019 after a failed alliance with the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which the SPÖ is polling behind in third place.

Babler is notable for sometimes identifying as a Marxist and describing the European Union as "the most aggressive foreign policy alliance that ever existed," "worse than NATO," and "an imperialist project with a few social standards."

Doskozil, on the other hand, was trying to eat into the FPÖ's current popularity by taking a harder line on issues like immigration. Either way, and regardless of Excel fails, it does not look like the SPÖ will storm to government next year.

As Douglas Hoyos, leader of the centrist NEOS party, commented on Twitter: "Those who cannot organize elections will also not win them." ®

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