BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Jobbik, a party once known for its xenophobic, anti-Semitic views, is gambling that its shift to the center-ground will win over more Hungarian voters in next month’s election and allow it to become the main opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
As Jobbik has steadily abandoned far-right views on Europe, immigration and other issues, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has moved sharply to the right with talk of preserving Hungary’s “ethnic homogeneity” and comparing the EU to the Soviet Union.
In power since 2010, Fidesz remains well ahead of its rivals in opinion polls but millions of Hungarians are still undecided about whom to support in the April 8 election and Jobbik’s newly moderate tone appeals to many voters.
“This (change) suits me better, I like it better than when it was mocked as a Nazi party,” said Dezso Borbas, 60, a Jobbik voter in the western Hungarian city of Nagykanizsa.
In Nagykanizsa, as in many districts around the country, the Jobbik candidate is head-to-head with the Fidesz incumbent.
Jobbik chairman Gabor Vona exuded confidence at a recent rally in Budapest.
“We are not afraid of Orban,” he said. “The outgoing premier will be relegated to the dark pages of history. After 8 April, he will fall.”
Opinion polls currently put Jobbik in second place, at 12-14 percent against about 30 percent for Fidesz. But some pollsters say support for Fidesz may be exaggerated as some Hungarians are wary about publicly expressing opposition to it.
“I expect Jobbik to deliver a surprise result compared to the opinion polls, with a much stronger, better result at the elections,” said Tamas Boros, a political analyst at the Policy Solutions think-tank.
“That does not mean it would win the elections or that the government would be replaced, but Jobbik will visibly become by far the strongest opposition party.”
Jobbik currently has 24 seats in the 199-member parliament, while Fidesz has 131 and the Socialists 28. The Socialists have been in disarray in recent months and are expected to lose seats.
Boros said Jobbik could attract many undecided voters, who account for about another third of the electorate. Some may not want to admit in surveys to supporting Jobbik because of the party’s hardline past, analysts say.
Jobbik has stepped up its attacks on official graft and cronyism and has called for bigger efforts to tackle social inequality in Hungary and to reverse an exodus of workers to wealthier countries in western Europe.
Under Orban, annual economic growth has returned to around 4 percent in recent years, but the EU and human rights groups accuse him of undermining media freedoms and judicial independence and steering Hungary toward authoritarianism.
Ironically Fidesz now sounds very much like the old Jobbik with its fierce criticisms of the EU and immigration.
Senior Jobbik politician Marton Gyongyosi said he was “horrified” by how Fidesz had adopted elements of his party’s former program and pushed them to an extreme.
He said Orban’s demonizing of Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros was “insane”. Orban has accused Soros of seeking to flood Europe with Muslim migrants, a charge the businessman strongly rejects.
“You might oppose many things George Soros stands for, including liberal ideology or liberal social theory, but you cannot have this type of hate campaign against an individual or against an ideology,” Gyongyosi said.
Like his party, Gyongyosi, a suave businessman educated in Ireland, has moved a long way in the past few years. In 2012 he caused outrage by calling for a list of lawmakers with a Jewish background, but he subsequently said he had “misspoken” and that he now regarded such talk as dangerous.
“This is the first election where we can put the whole new strategy and paradigm shift of this party to the real test,” he said. “It is a huge test for Jobbik.”
Jobbik is focusing on a “Top 40” constituencies, all of them outside Budapest and mostly in rural areas, Gyongyosi said, allowing leftist and green candidates to focus their energies on unseating Fidesz in urban areas.
He predicted that his party could win up to 100 seats in the new parliament - a tall order, according to political analyst Boros, who said Jobbik could nevertheless continue to build up its support and become a contender for power in the future.
Jobbik chairman Vona ruled out any future coalition with either Fidesz or the Socialists, but also signaled it might cooperate with smaller parties such as the young liberals’ Momentum Movement or the green LMP.
The election race has been jolted by a by-election last month, in which an political novice backed by the entire opposition easily beat the Fidesz candidate for mayor in Hodmezovasarhely, a rural bastion of Orban’s party.
“There are technical opportunities there to (beat) Fidesz in a national election as well,” Gyongyosi said. “We just have to find a way to do it.”
Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Gareth Jones