By Marton Dunai
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - About a thousand Hungarians protested on Friday against a crackdown on the main opposition party Jobbik which has been threatened by a record political campaign fine that the party leader describes as a "death sentence" for democracy.
Despite the gloomy rhetoric and Jobbik saying it was fighting for survival, support for the demonstration was well down on other similar rallies over the past year.
Hungarians will vote for a new parliament in April and Prime Minister Viktor Orban's conservative, anti-migrant Fidesz party is far ahead in the polls, with Jobbik its nearest rival.
Jobbik, once on the far right, has turned toward the center in a bid to attract more support and is now campaigning nationwide against Orban, depicting him as the leader of a criminal gang.
Orban, rejecting the charges, says his financial standing is "an open book".
Last week the state audit office (ASZ) ruled Jobbik had bought political posters far below market prices, breaching rules on political funding, then it slapped a 663 million forint ($2.5 million) penalty on the party.
The protesters, waving Jobbik flags and posters deriding the ruling elite, gathered outside the headquarters of Orban's Fidesz party.
"What we see unfolding is not an audit office investigation. It is not an official penalty. This is a death sentence with Jobbik's name on it. But in reality, it is a death sentence for Hungarian democracy," Jobbiik leader Gabor Vona told the crowd.
A government spokesman could not comment immediately on his remarks.
ASZ chairman Laszlo Domokos is a former Fidesz lawmaker, whom Jobbik and other critics accuse of making decisions in favor of Orban. The audit office denies that.
On Friday, ASZ again called on Jobbik to submit information that would challenge its findings, saying it acted fully within its rights throughout the probe. The ruling Fidesz party and the government have denied any involvement in the ASZ probe.
"This case has nothing to do with the election campaign," Orban aide Janos Lazar said on Thursday.
For over a year Fidesz has targeted Jobbik, whose move to the center could upend the longstanding status quo of a dominant Fidesz with weaker opponents to its left and its right, said analyst Zoltan Novak at the Centre for Fair Political Analysis.
Gyorgy Illes, a 67-year-old pensioner attending the rally, said he used to be a Socialist supporter but got disillusioned as the party struggled to overcome its internal divisions.
"This ASZ probe is a clear sign that Orban is way past any remedy. It is a ruthless attack on everything we hold dear. Democracy, the rule of law, equality, you name it," he said.
(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Richard Balmforth)