VIENNA, Jan 27 (Reuters) - Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen on Saturday called on Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Udo Landbauer to step down from elections in the province of Lower Austria after it emerged a group he was a member of had distributed song books with Nazi content.
The anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPO), junior coalition government partner to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives, was founded by former Nazis and has repeatedly excluded members in Nazi scandals. It says it has left its Nazi past behind.
“It’s not just a case of whitewashing ... but a ridicule of mass murder during the Holocaust, especially the ridicule of the gassing of millions of Jews in Auschwitz,” Van der Bellen said on the TV programme Mittagsjournal on Austrian broadcaster Oe1.
“I mean, where are we? To just accept that without any commentary, and saying the courts must decide over the matter, that’s not my position.”
Landbauer, the FPO’s top candidate in Lower Austria, which holds a provincial election this weekend, was deputy leader of a fraternity which came under close attention this week when it emerged that it produced a songbook in 1997 that included references to killing Jews.
Landbauer suspended his membership of the fraternity after the scandal erupted and denied any knowledge of such songs.
He said the judiciary had to deal with the case, but added that the book in question had been produced when he was 11 years old, meaning he could not be held responsible for it.
Prosecutors have opened an investigation against persons unknown.
On Friday, thousands of Austrians marched peacefully in protest against an annual Viennese ball held by the Freedom Party, continuing a wave of demonstrations since its return to government last month.
The Academics’ Ball in the former imperial palace in central Vienna draws protests every year. But while previous years’ demonstrations have mainly comprised members of anti-fascist and left-wing groups, Friday’s protest drew a larger and more varied crowd.
Police put the number of people taking part in the march at 8,000 while organisers said the turnout was 10,000.
Several FPO ministers had said they would not attend the ball, which included many members of far-right fraternities to which several senior party figures also belong.
However, the head of the FPO, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, did attend, with his wife.
Some of those fraternities espouse ideas that echo Nazi ideology, such as the idea of a larger Germany including Austria. (Reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi and Francois Murphy; Editing by Andrew Bolton)