The Austrian far-right Freedom Party has suspended one of its city councilors amid allegations he gave a Nazi salute and declared “Heil Hitler,” Reuters reported on Tuesday, citing the Austrian newspaper Der Standard.
The Freedom Party, or FPOe, is one of Europe’s most established nationalist parties, and is forecast to come second or third in snap elections scheduled for Sunday, possibly boosting it to become a junior coalition partner in the government.
According to the report, an independent local councilor complained to her mayor that she saw the Freedom Party member give the Nazi salute.
The newspaper did not identify any of city officials involved in the incident, nor where it occurred.
A lawyer representing the mayor said two witnesses had given statements in the case and that the matter would be handed over to prosecutors, the report said.
It is illegal to make statements extolling Nazism in Austria, the country where Germany’s World War II Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was born.
Josef Riemer, Freedom Party lawmaker for the constituency involved, said in a statement that the party official had been suspended while an investigation looks into the matter. Riemer noted that the councilor denies the accusations and had hired a lawyer in the matter.
Last month, the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate lost in a runoff by less than 1 percent of the vote. In its journey from a fringe movement 15 years ago to the mainstream, the Freedom Party, which opposes immigration from Muslim countries, has sought to downplay its racist and anti-Semitic reputation.
Founded in 1956, the FPOe emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.
The party, whose first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS, also drew pan-Germanists — believers in unifying with Germany like in the Third Reich — and liberals fed up with the ruling centrist establishment.
Over the decades, the FPOe increasingly encroached on two main parties, the Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People’s Party (OeVP), which have dominated post-war Austrian politics.
Its current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, apologized in 2012 for posting on Facebook a caricature depicting an obese, hook-nosed banker wearing star-shaped cufflinks. Strache’s predecessor, Joerg Haider, praised Nazi employment policies and the Waffen-SS.
Freedom Party lawmakers often have attended and spoken at events commemorating Nazis, including a gathering in memory of an Austria-born Nazi fighter pilot who shot down 258 planes, almost all Russian. And Strache himself was accused of using a Nazi salute in 2009, which he denied.
Strache visited Israel this year and met with officials there. He said he supports Israel’s fight against radical Islam and has argued he has purged his party of anti-Semitism.