Polls have opened in Slovakia for general elections that are expected to hand premier Robert Fico a third term in office. The leftist leader's anti-immigration stance has bolstered his popularity in the EU country.
As voting got underway at 7 a.m. local time (0600 UTC) on Saturday, polls were predicting Prime Minister Robert Fico's Smer SD would retain its position as Slovakia's largest party.
In the lead-up to the vote, the populist Smer SD, or Social Democrats, sought to tap into concerns about migration in the predominantly Catholic country, campaigning under the slogan "We protect Slovakia."
Fico has dismissed multiculturalism as "a fiction," and warned that jihadists masquerading as refugees could infiltrate the European Union. His vocal anti-migrant views, which echo those of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have boosted his support among voters.
"We'll never bring even a single Muslim to Slovakia: we won't create any Muslim communities here because they pose a serious security risk," Fico told thousands at a rally in the capital, Bratislava, this week. He's also vowed to reject EU attempts to evenly spread the number of migrants flooding into Greece and Italy around the bloc.
The election will likely be closely watched by officials in Brussels. Slovakia is set to take over the EU's rotating presidency in July, giving it a bigger role in EU policy discussions.
On track to win
Opinion polls suggest Smer SD will lose its parliamentary majority while securing enough votes to form a government with a coalition partner.
"The anti-immigration rhetoric combined with a few handouts is enough for Fico to win the election," said Samuel Abraham from the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts, referring to the government's welfare measures, which include an initiative giving free train rides to students and pensioners.
Under Fico, who has been premier since 2012, Slovakia's economy has grown by 4 percent, public debt remains relatively low, and the traditionally high unemployment rate has dropped for the first time to below 10 percent. Opponents, however, say his government is corrupt, inefficient and has failed to improve the standard of healthcare and education.
A total of 22 parties are vying for votes, including several splinter groups formed out of an increasingly fractious center-right opposition.
Analysts suggest that to clinch his third term, 51-year-old Fico could relaunch a controversial coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), or team up with moderate right-wing and centrist parties. There's also a chance that center-right opposition parties, including Radoslav Prochazkaled's Siet (Net), could cobble together an anti-Fico coalition.
Some 4.4 million people are eligible to vote in Saturday's election. Polling stations are due to close at 10 p.m. (2100 UTC), with exit polls expected to be published immediately after voting ends.
nm/tj (Reuters, AFP)