Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is poised to win this weekend’s general election, following a campaign built on strident anti-refugee policies shared by other EU leaders like Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński and Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán.
But polls suggest the leader of the Smer-Social Democracy party (Smer-SD) will lose his comfortable parliament majority Saturday (5 March) after fundamental issues like health and education overshadowed his anti-refugee thrust in the final days of campaigning.
Analysts say that to keep his grip on power, the 51-year-old leftist could revive an unconventional coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) he first forged in 2006-10.
Leaders like Fico in the EU’s poorer ex-communist east have taken a hard line against accepting refugees as the continent grapples with its worst migration crisis since World War II – and they have been backed by public opinion.
Arguing that jihadists could slip into Slovakia masquerading as refugees, Fico has slammed the EU’s migration policy as “ritual suicide”. After November’s attacks in Paris, he said authorities were “monitoring every Muslim in Slovakia”.
Jan Baranek, an analyst with the Polis Slovakia think-tank, said Fico “even changed his party’s slogan to ‘Protecting Slovakia’, i.e. ‘protecting Slovakia against migrants'”.
Bratislava also filed a lawsuit against a proposed EU quota system for distributing migrants across the 28-member bloc after Fico dubbed it a “complete fiasco”.
Along with regional allies the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, Slovakia has also vowed to help Bulgaria and Macedonia seal their borders with Greece, should Athens fail to stem the tide of refugees from Turkey by mid-March.
Macedonia said Tuesday (1 March) it would post more troops on its volatile border with Greece, a day after police fired tear gas at hundreds of migrants, including women and children, who tried to break through the border fence.
All these moves come as Slovakia gears up for its first stint as rotating EU president in the second half of this year.
While his anti-refugee stance earned Fico political capital in early campaigning, analysts say its impact has waned as migrants have travelled on to wealthier Germany.
“Health and education became the topical issues before the election, especially because of striking nurses and teachers,” Baranek told AFP.
Economic growth in the eurozone member of 5.4 million people, which boasts the world’s biggest auto-making sector per capita, hit a robust 3.5% in 2015. Government projections show it is set to hover around 3.2-3.3% this year and next.
But public sector workers who feel left behind have staged strikes demanding wage hikes ahead of the vote.
“Fico keeps talking about Muslim migrants and forgets about Slovak teachers and nurses,” Alena Takacova, a 44-year-old Bratislava office worker, told AFP. She will vote for “someone from the opposition”.
An ex-communist known for his strong populist streak, Fico vowed “to raise teachers’ salaries by at least 25% over the next term” if his party wins.
The Smer-SD holds 83 seats in the 150-member parliament, but analysts cite opinion polls predicting a cut to 65-70.
They also agree that Fico, who is seeking his third term as premier, could turn back to the eurosceptic and far-right SNS as coalition partners, who joined him in his first stint in power.
Sometimes described as ultra-nationalist, the SNS commands around 10% of popular support.
Although Andrej Danko, the party’s new leader, has toned down its anti-EU, anti-Roma and xenophobic views, his deputy wants EU reforms to rein-in “the exaggerated ambitions of the Brussels administration to rule, command and regulate free European nations”.
Analysts also admit the possibility, albeit unlikely, that a gaggle of right-wing and centrist parties could scrape together a coalition to dethrone Fico.
Fico used generous public spending to engineer a quick political fix when philanthropist Andrej Kiska beat him to the presidency in 2014, cutting food taxes, boosting childcare allowances and hiking the minimum wage.
Martin Hudecky, a 23-year-old Bratislava student who stayed away from the ballot box four years ago, says Fico has his support.
“I like the way Fico governs,” he said. “He gave free trains to students and pensioners, he brought foreign investors to Slovakia. He’s a pro.”