BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's Jobbik party on Monday denied it was racist or anti-Semitic, after softening its far-right rhetoric and seizing a parliamentary seat from the ruling party in a weekend by-election amid a surge in support.
Jobbik has gained support as voters drift away from mainstream parties like Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz, which is battling a public view that some of its leaders have used their posts to enrich themselves.
Jewish groups say they are skeptical that Jobbik has changed. World Jewish Congress Chairman Ronald S. Lauder said on Sunday the party's rise was hurting Hungary's image.
Jobbik Chairman Gabor Vona, 37, said at a news conference in Hungary's parliament on Monday his party's shift to the center was genuine and vowed to trim what he called its "wild offshoots".
Asked about Lauder's remarks, he invited the Jewish leader for an exchange of ideas. "The best remedy is consistency," he said. "I have made Jobbik's views clear time and again.
"No one should fear Jobbik's ascent," he added. "Jobbik has no program to discriminate against people. If anyone, a supporter or a member, expects that then they have come to the wrong place. They should find another party."
Asked why his party had not expelled Gergely Kulcsar, an MP who in 2011 spat on a Holocaust memorial and called the Nazi genocide a lie, Vona said the incident had happened a long time ago and the MP had apologized. He declined to say whether Jobbik would force the MP out.
"He is really sorry for what he did and I believe him," Vona said. "We made it clear that we share the pain of all victims (of the Holocaust), irrespective of heritage, including the pain of Jews, and we try to deal with the questions of the future."
Analysts expect Jobbik to make further gains, and say it could even take the lead in polls. Jobbik was within three percentage points of Fidesz in to the most recent Ipsos poll in March. Elections are not due until 2018.
"A critical mass of voters no longer considers Jobbik an extreme choice," the think tank Political Capital said in a note. "The taboos that once kept voters away from Jobbik have fallen ... there is no ceiling to the party's growth."
Reporting by Marton Dunai; editing by Andrew Roche