BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Socialist party leader Attila Mesterhazy challenged Prime Minister Viktor Orban to a televised debate at an opposition rally on Sunday, ahead of the election on April 6 that Orban's Fidesz party looks well-placed to win.
A leftist alliance led by Mesterhazy has struggled to gain traction with voters with a March survey by pollster Tarki putting the alliance grouping at 16 percent of all voters, just ahead of far-right party Jobbik, while Fidesz was backed by 38 percent of voters.
But Mesterhazy told thousands of supporters gathered in central Budapest that Orban's unorthodox brand of fiscal stabilisation had failed, promising more jobs and higher economic growth if the leftist alliance is elected.
"I am again calling on the prime minister to accept the challenge and take part in a debate on April 5 as the prime minister of any democratic country should," Mesterhazy told the crowd. Fidesz has rejected the idea.
"Those abstaining from the vote will end up backing Orban. But those voting for other parties will also end up the same way. Only our alliance is able to deliver a change of government," Mesterhazy said.
A pro-government rally on Saturday, where Orban demanded four more years in power, attracted a much bigger crowd.
If in power, Mesterhazy said the leftist alliance would cut the prices of basic foods, raise pensions and the minimum wage and provide the elderly, a main source of support for the Socialists, with targeted drug price subsidies.
Before Orban's landslide win in the 2010 election successive Socialist governments presided over years of budgetary overshoots and the indebted country was pulled back from the brink of collapse with an International Monetary Fund loan in 2008.
Orban's government got Hungary off the EU's list of budgetary sinners after nine years of mostly Socialist rule.
In an interview with Reuters early this month Mesterhazy said the leftist alliance would aim to keep the budget deficit below the European Union's 3 percent ceiling, in part by keeping alive Orban's signature "crisis" taxes which he has levied on some business sectors.
"The current left is the lesser of two evils. I am afraid that if the right wins again by such a wide margin, all hell will break loose here," said Zoltan Drukner, 53, a newspaper delivery man who was attending the Mesterhazy rally.
"They will regulate our lives to such a degree that even the rightist voters, who worship Viktor Orban like a god today, they will come to regret this whole situation the most," said Drukner, a former journalist.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)