Slovak Premier Robert Fico is on course for re-election with his tough talk on immigration. Observers see a pragmatist at work rather than an EU dissenter like Hungary's Viktor Orban. Ian Willoughby reports from Prague.
The center-left Smer party headed by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico looks set to return to power in elections taking place on Saturday. The final opinion poll before the vote put the grouping at 32.5 percent, more than double the support enjoyed by their nearest rivals.
Fico, a 51-year-old former Communist Party member, has been one of the most vocal critics of a European Union scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees around the bloc. Indeed, his legal challenge against the decision at the European Court of Justice led the Party of European Socialists to threaten to expel Smer (which translates as "Direction").
Land-locked Slovakia, with a population of 5.4 million, registered only 330 asylum-seekers last year. However, the fact the country is not a popular destination for refugees has not stopped Fico placing anti-migrant rhetoric front and center of his campaign to secure a third term in office.
Smer billboards pasted across the country read "We protect Slovakia," and the party's leader has been talking tough on the immigration issue at every opportunity.
Following reports of sexual assaults in the German city of Cologne on New Year's Eve he warned of something similar befalling "our women," while he told one newspaper he would not accept the creation of a "compact, closed Muslim community" in Slovakia that would be "a huge threat to the European way of life."
Atmosphere of fear
Lucia Najslova, the Slovak editor-in-chief of regional current affairs website V4 Revue, says the language employed by Fico - who lost a presidential bid in 2014 - has had a pernicious impact. "He has contributed to an atmosphere of fear in Slovakia by framing migration as a threat," she says.
Analyst Samuel Abraham from the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts says this approach is not merely a campaign ploy. "It's his strategy to win the elections, but it's also his very own agenda," says Abraham. "This is the true nature of Mr. Fico."
Several parties have adopted anti-refugee rhetoric, while some Slovaks have taken to the streets to protest against migration
After peaking at around 40 percent on the back of the migration issue, Smer's poll numbers have been slipping steadily since the beginning of the year. Many of Slovakia's other parties have stolen Fico's thunder by adopting similar positions on asylum-seekers. In addition, his unrelenting focus on the subject may eventually have grated with voters.
"At some point Fico's whole anti-immigration rant started falling on deaf ears," says Michal Simecka, a Slovak analyst with the Institute of International Relations in Prague. "People simply became fed up with it. Also there was no real and present danger, in the sense that there were no real immigrants coming to Slovakia."
While Fico led Slovakia into the eurozone in 2009 during his first stint as PM, his position on migration currently leaves him some distance outside the EU mainstream. Some experts suggest he is also out of step with Slovak voter sentiment with regard to the bloc.
"Public opinion polls show that Slovaks are supportive of European integration," says Lucia Najslova. "They appreciate the benefits of border-free travel."
The fall-off in support for Smer means that after forming Slovakia's first single-party government following a landslide election win in 2012, Fico will now likely need to enter into coalition. His first choice of partner is expected to be the Slovak National Party (SNS), with which he ruled between 2006 and 2010.
The SNS is an extreme nationalist grouping whose leader, Jan Slota, became notorious for inflammatory anti-Hungarian and anti-Roma statements the last time they were in the cabinet. Current chairman Andrej Danko uses more measured language, but the party's core values remain the same, according to Michal Simecka.
"The danger of that coalition is not so much the SNS having power over strategic decisions - and they definitely wouldn't be setting foreign policy," says Simecka. "It's more the fact that there won't be anyone in the coalition to temper Fico's instincts and strategic orientation."
The Slovak prime minister's tough stand on the EU's migration policy (which he has dubbed "ritual suicide"), social conservatism and nationalist tendencies have led some to view him as part of a trend of authoritarian leaders in the Central and Eastern Europe region.
However, analyst Samuel Abraham insists that Fico is in a "totally different ball game" from Hungarian leader Viktor Orban or Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland.
"Orban changed the constitution and is creating an authoritarian regime, and Kaczynski, through his proxy prime minister, is taking over the branches of executive power and keeping control over the legislature and maybe even the judiciary," says Abraham. "But Fico sticks to democratic principles; he follows the rules."
Michal Simecka describes Fico as a pragmatist first and foremost. This could even, he suggests, lead him to reverse course once he wins the election, resetting his policy toward Europe and seeking to repair badly damaged relations with Germany.
However, assuming Fico is able to form a cabinet, much may depend on its composition. "If he goes into coalition with the Christian Democrats or the Hungarian minority Most [Bridge] party, there will definitely be a more moderate Slovak foreign policy," says Simecka. "A lot also depends on what happens in Europe, what happens in Germany, and what happens with the migration crisis."