BUDAPEST, Hungary — The far-right Jobbik party has made significant gains in rural areas in Hungary's municipal elections, where it has become the main challenger to Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party.
Jobbik, led by Gabor Vona, won elections in 14 mostly smaller cities and towns on Sunday, while another six independent winners ran with the party's support. In 2010, they won in only three cities.
While remaining far behind Fidesz, especially in Budapest, Jobbik is now second in all but one of Hungary's 19 county assemblies, an important foundation looking ahead to the next national elections, set for April 2018.
Jobbik first attracted voters in some of the poorest areas in eastern Hungary by promising to fight "Gypsy crime," usually petty offenses too small to warrant police attention, while also speaking out against Jewish or Israeli investments in the country.
With the success it achieved all over the country, "Jobbik is now a party at the national level and it continues to have potential for growth," said Kornelia Magyar of the Magyar Progressive Institute.
Jobbik has benefited from the fragmentation of the left-wing parties — the once-dominant Socialist Party is being challenged by former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and others — and also has drawn some of the voters disillusioned with the government.
"Jobbik has also achieved success by stressing law and order, a message which certain areas find especially attractive," Magyar said.
Repeating its strategy from April's parliamentary elections, when it got 20.3 percent of the votes, Jobbik has sought to soften its image and avoid some of the anti-Roma and racist statements of the past. But the changes may be only cosmetic.
"At the national level, Jobbik tried to show a more moderate face," said analyst Attila Juhasz of Political Capital, a Budapest think-tank. "In the local campaigns, however, they stuck to the same extreme right-wing rhetoric and anti-Roma positions which were typical earlier."
Speaking Monday in parliament, Vona, Jobbik's 36-year-old leader, said his party "has steadily become the second force in Hungary."
While Fidesz still has a two-thirds majority in parliament and elected mayors in 20 of Hungary's 23 most important cities, it has been losing voters at the national and local level since its landslide victories in 2010.
"It is a real challenge for Fidesz whether it can prevent Jobbik from strengthening," Juhasz said.
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