On Wednesday evening Cologne's electoral commission declared 53,000 postal votes for the upcoming mayoral election invalid and ordered that the vote be delayed until 27th September, reports the Rheinische Post.
The commission justified the decision by saying that postal voters now didn't have time to send in new slips before the planned 13th September election.
The decision is set to cost the city €1 million. But much more seriously it has called into question the transparency of the electoral process, as accusations have emerged that the SPD, Germany's largest centre-left party, sought to deliberately manipulate the results.
Font size dispute
The extraordinary episode came about when party names were printed in a much larger font on voting slips than names of candidates – a fact the electoral commission felt disadvantaged independent candidates.
Blame would appear to lie with Agnes Klein of the left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPD), who is in charge of the election and who allowed the voting slips to be sent out.
Pertinent to the controversy is the fact that the error clearly benefits Klein's party colleague Jochen Ott.
While Ott is standing for SPD, his rival Henriette Reker who is backed by a coalition of Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) is officially running as an independent.
That means that while Ott has a big fat SPD next to his name, Reker's name, in her own words “can't be read without glasses.”
The offending voting slip with party names in large print. Source: Bezirksregierung Köln
Germany's chaos city
Cologne, along with Hamburg, Berlin and Munich is one of four cities in Germany with a population over a million. But unlike the other metropolises of the Federal Republic it has no clear political leaning. Ever since the war power has swung from right to left and back again.
The great CDU politician Konrad Adenauer held the post of mayor immediately after the war before becoming Chancellor of West Germany. After several decades in the wilderness, the CDU retook the office in 1999 before losing it to current incumbent Jürgen Roters of the SPD in 2009.
With elections often tight, electoral mishaps are nothing new. The Süddeutsche Zeiting reports that electoral mismanagement is so well established in the city that it has come to be know as Germany's 'chaos city.'
As recently as last year votes were miscounted in the district of Rodenkirchen leading to the SPD taking power in the borough council.
After the CDU complained, a recount put them back in power and Klein's predecessor Guido Kahlen also of the SPD, lost his job in May after an inquiry into the incident.
Posters for the two main cadidates Jochen Ott and Henriette Reker. Photo: DPA
While the CDU have remained dominant in German politics at the national level for over a decade, the only place where they SPD have managed to eat away at their rival's support has been at the municipal level.
Some of the SPD's opponents are now suggesting that that they have employed dirty tricks to ensure their party remains in power in Cologne.
FDP boss in Cologne Yvonne Gebauer asked “How has it come to pass that a manipulative voting slip favoured the candidate who belongs to the same party as the person who was in charge of the elections?“ reports express.de.
Meanwhile, the head of the CDU in the city, Bernd Petelkau, described the incident as “unbelievable amateurishness and an attack on democratic values.“
But SPD mayoral candidate Ott has been quick to distance himself from the fiasco describing himself as “really hacked off”
“I've been running around all day long trying to get my ideas heard. It shouldn't be too hard to organize an election by the rules. I was given an advantage on the voting slip that I absolutely don't want.”
Klein herself told the Rheinische Post she hoped that, while citizens yet to cast their vote would be provided with new slips, the 53,000 postal votes would still be counted “for the sake of limiting the damage.”
Agnes Klein (SPD) is in charge of the mayoral elections. Photo: DPA