BUDAPEST Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks likely to win a second term in parliamentary elections on Sunday, but the far-right Jobbik party is on course for a strong showing.
A good result for Jobbik, accused by critics of being anti-Semitic and stoking antipathy toward Hungary's Roma minority, could be a harbinger of how other nationalist right-wing parties will perform in European Parliament elections next month.
In a poll published on Thursday, Orban's Fidesz scored 36 percent, Jobbik had 15 percent support and the Socialist-led leftist alliance had 18 percent.
Orban's centre-right Fidesz is certain to have enough seats to form a government, a sign voters are not concerned about idiosyncratic policies that have angered the European Union and hurt foreign investment.
The only question mark is whether Fidesz will retain the two-thirds majority that allows it to change the constitution.
Orban, 50, portrays himself as a champion of national sovereignty and has implemented policies that have hurt banks and many foreign-owned businesses.
He says the measures, including a nationalization of $14 billion in private pension assets, were needed to stabilize Hungary's shaky finances and prevent a Greek-style collapse.
He has pledged to stick to his policies if reelected, continuing to cut energy prices and getting rid of foreign currency mortgages that are burdening households. Banks fear this could inflict further losses.
Critics say Orban has used his mandate to curb democratic checks and balances and the freedom of the media.
While many investors have been scared off, the Hungarian people have been won over by his government's steps to cut personal income taxes and slash energy bills for households.
"I want them to continue what they started, the utility price cuts," said Eva Repassy, 53, a teacher at a rally on Saturday that attracted hundreds of thousands of Orban supporters.
ON THE RISE
However, many Hungarians, especially in the poorer north-east, feel the past four years have not brought any improvement in quality of life, or jobs, aside from public works programs.
The leftist alliance led by Socialist Attila Mesterhazy has promised to cut the prices of basic foods and raise the minimum wage. But its support has faltered ahead of the vote.
The alliance has suffered from infighting over leadership, a roster of candidates that look similar to the team that suffered a crushing defeat in 2010, and a corruption scandal.
For voters who are disappointed in Fidesz that leaves Jobbik as an option. Polls show the party is enjoying a late surge and may even win as much 20 percent of the popular vote.
And a robust result could help Jobbik in European Parliament elections due in May.
Cas Mudde, Assistant Professor at the School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, said he saw a pattern of far-right parties in Europe doing fairly well in elections, but without any spectacular gains.
That was the case with the National Front in French local elections last weekend and was likely to be repeated by Jobbik in Hungary, he said. National issues are most important in voters' choices but there were common factors too pushing people towards European far-right parties.
"They appeal to a similar type of voters who are dissatisfied with mainstream parties, and who are upset about immigrants, are focused on crime and want to maintain a welfare state for the natives," Mudde told Reuters.
Jobbik presents itself as the only viable choice for Hungarians who feel they have been let down by all of the country's post-communist governments, both right and left.
The party pledges to create jobs, be tough on crime, renegotiate state debt and hold a referendum on EU membership. It also says it will hold corrupt politicians to account.
While Jobbik has softened its image in a bid to appeal to a broader group of voters, it has not abandoned some of its more radical ideas.
Some of its politicians are still openly anti-Semitic. It still counts on support from radical far-right groups. And even though the uniformed vigilante group Hungarian Guard was banned in 2009 it was replaced by several other organizations, such as the New Hungarian Guard.
In the eastern town of Gyongyos, where Jobbik leader Gabor Vona is running for a parliament seat, Attila Sebok told Reuters he voted for Fidesz four years ago, but will now choose Jobbik.
Sebok, 44, said the government failed to create jobs, raised many taxes and has not clamped down on rampant crime.
"I voted for Fidesz and regretted it," he said.
Peter Kreko at thinktank Political Capital said Jobbik could win around 10 percent of 199 seats in Hungary's new, smaller parliament. In 2010 it ended up with 12.2 percent of the seats.
"If they manage to achieve a better election result than in 2010, they will present it as a huge success," Kreko said. "This could positively impact their European Parliament election result, and Jobbik's growth potential."
(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Editing by Angus MacSwan; )