Reuters International

Former presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

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By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's Constitutional Court will announce on Friday whether the May 22 presidential election, which a far-right candidate was narrowly defeated, must be held again because of widespread irregularities in the way some ballots were counted.

Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party, who would have been the first far-right head of state in the European Union, lost the run-off vote by less than a percentage point to former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen.

A re-run would reopen a debate that split Austria almost evenly, pitting town against country, and blue-collar workers worried about immigration and falling living standards against the more highly educated.

That familiar debate would, however, take place in a changed European climate after Britain voted last week to leave the European Union - a referendum in which similar concerns about immigration and jobs featured prominently.

"The (Constitutional Court) will make its decision on (the presidential election) known on Friday July 1," court spokesman Christian Neuwirth said on Twitter on Thursday. "It will be announced publicly."

Postal ballots swung the May election against Hofer, and the Freedom Party formally challenged the result, focusing on alleged irregularities in the way most of the more than 700,000 postal ballots cast were counted. Hofer lost by around 31,000.

Witnesses have told the court of several cases in which postal ballots were tabulated sooner than they should have been - before 9 a.m. the day after the May 22 election, as officials tried to ensure the count was completed by the Monday afternoon.

That and other signs of widespread sloppiness by election officials and party observers have dismayed the public. They range from not attending the count to not reading forms certifying the count was carried out properly before signing them.

"We're no good at playing soccer, we're no good at elections," weekly magazine News said in a headline summing up the national mood after the testimony and Austria's elimination from the Euro 2016 football tournament.

It is unclear whether the irregularities uncovered are enough for the court to find the law was broken in a way that could have influenced the vote's outcome - the standard for the challenge to succeed.

The panel of 14 judges can order remedies ranging up to a re-run of the election.

The Freedom Party has denounced what it has called a "more than frightening" number of irregularities, but lawyers acting for the Greens argue that there was no manipulation of the result.

"Not only do we not have a body, it doesn't smell of one in the slightest," one of those lawyers, Georg Buerstmayr, told the court on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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