Slovakia's Fico set for election win, reinforcing central Europe's EU dissenters

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is on course to win another term in parliamentary elections on Saturday, maintaining an anti-immigration alliance with his European Union neighbors, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bratislava, Slovakia, February 22, 2016. REUTERS/David W Cerny

Fico, 51, is a Social Democrat but fits in with his two conservative peers when it comes to a focus on national pride, social conservatism and strong opposition to immigration.

Opinion polls show Fico’s Smer party will win 32.5-38.4 percent of the vote, enough to retain power with a coalition partner or two.

Many in Brussels are watching the election and Fico’s views on migration because Slovakia will hold the rotating six-month EU presidency from July, giving it a bigger voice in EU discussions.

Fico has made his tough stand against German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy the main issue in the election, and could beat his nearest rivals by around 20 percentage points, enough to lead the next cabinet.

Linking the influx of migrants into Europe to the November attacks in Paris and New Year Eve assaults on women in Germany, Fico said Muslim immigrants could not integrate.

“Multi-culturalism is a fiction. Once you let migrants in, you can face such problems,” he said. “Virtually every time there’s a terror attack, it’s... Muslims.”

Fico is already openly clashing with the EU, saying Slovakia will not take its share of 160,000 refugees the EU agreed to relocate among its 28 members. He has filed a suit with the European Court of Justice against the plan.

“CEE countries are now willing to break the EU consensus. That could have negative implications for decision-making processes on the EU level,” said Otilia Dhand, analyst at Teneo Intelligence in New York.

Fico’s line appears to have resonated in the largely Catholic country, which has had trouble integrating its Roma minority and at times had tense relations with its ethnic Hungarians.

The landlocked nation of 5.4 million lies off the route that more than a million people fleeing war and poverty took to Germany last year, when only 330 people sought asylum in Slovakia.

Many Slovaks have never even met an immigrant, so they have not had a chance to confront the television coverage and political messages they see with their own experience.

Fico’s line echoes Orban who says the flood of migrants would redraw the cultural, ethnic and religious map of Europe. Kaczynski has said refugees could bring diseases into Poland and threaten the country’s Catholic way of life.

Central Europe’s anti-Muslim rhetoric stands out in the region, although some of its other views, such as on tighter Schengen border management and rule enforcement, have won wider acceptance as Europe grapples with the refugee crisis.


Some are concerned that Fico may also follow Orban and Kaczynski’s path in clamping down on democratic checks and balances. He has had poor relations with a critical press, filing lawsuits and adopting a media law in 2008 that was criticized by human rights groups.

But the former Communist Party member has no deep ideological roots and has shown no urge to control the media or revamp the constitution. He has backed euro zone policies and kept an open door to foreign investors, and last week told Reuters he wanted to maintain a “lively democracy”.

“Fico does not have such authoritarian tendencies like Orban. He has ruled alone for four years and he could have done much worse,” said analyst Samuel Abraham, head of Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts.

Fico’s power will also be checked because Smer is likely to lose its absolute majority in parliament. Surprise gains by center-right parties could even oust him from the office he has held for eight of the last 10 years.

Tim Haughton from the Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham said Fico might cool the tone after the election to protect the benefits the trade-dependent country enjoys from free movement in the EU.

“For a country like Slovakia, the Schengen zone is very important, and it’s in Fico’s interest to ensure that its benefits are not lost,” Haughton said.

“It can be counterproductive to be a pain in the backside all the time.”

Writing by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Hugh Lawson