Slovakia's ruling party makes migrants a hot election issue

The question in Slovakia's parliamentary election on Saturday is not which party will win — but how big that margin of victory will be.

Prime Minister Robert Fico's ruling leftist Smer-Social Democracy party is a clear favorite but some feel Fico may have misjudged the public mood by focusing too much on Europe's migration crisis and not enough on Slovakia's own issues.

In the 2012 vote, Smer won a landslide, taking 44.4 percent of the vote, or 83 seats in the 150-seat Parliament. That allowed the party to govern alone in this nation of 5.4 million people, the first time one party has held sole power in Slovakia since the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia.

Fico favors a strong state role in the economy, has been critical of Western sanctions against Russia and is known for strong anti-Muslim rhetoric. Slovakia has not been part of the route that hundreds of thousands of refugees are using to reach Western Europe — but Fico has made it the central tenet of his campaign.

"We protect Slovakia," is the Smer slogan, splashed on giant billboards across the country.

Together with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban, Fico is a vocal opponent of a compulsory EU plan to redistribute refugees in member states and is suing the EU over it.

Fico claims there is a "clear link" between the waves of refugees, the deadly Islamic extremist attacks in Paris and the New Year's Eve sexual assaults in Germany. He said the attacks prove "the migrants cannot be integrated."

Last fall, his anti-migrant message seemed to be a sure bet, with Fico's popularity surging. But his campaign has been losing steam since because many Slovaks feel the migrant issue is not a major one for them, according to major polling agencies.

A recent teachers strike over low pay, nurses quitting hospitals en masse and corruption scandals in the health care system have overshadowed the migrant crisis, said Martin Slosiarik, director of the Focus polling agency.

"Fico has underestimated the domestic topics," he said.

Polls still indicate Fico's party will get well above 30 percent of the vote, but that may mean he needs at least one coalition partner to govern. That could be the ultra-Nationalist Slovak National Party, which hopes to return to Parliament after a four-year-absence.

The vote is still a tough challenge for the center-right opposition.

The Slovak export-oriented economy has been among the fastest growing in Europe, the overall debt is among the lowest and the unemployment rate is falling. Fico managed to attract Jaguar Land Rover to build a $1.7 billion plant last year to create up to 4,000 new jobs.

Fico has made other populist moves, such as giving free train tickets to retirees and students and having lower value-added tax on basic food items.

Five other parties, including a party of ethnic Hungarians, have a chance to win parliamentary seats in Saturday's election. The Net party established by Radoslav Prochazka, a conservative lawmaker who went to Yale Law School, is the only of them expected to win more than 10 percent.

But if Fico's victory is not big enough, the five parties could possibly put together a majority and send Fico into the opposition.

"In this respect, (the race) remains wide open," said Slosiarik.