Slovaks vote in parliamentary election

People walk past an election poster with the chairman of the SMER-Social Democracy party Robert Fico in Bratislava, Slovakia, Friday, March 4, 2016. AP
Slovaks began voting in a general election Saturday that polls show will hand firebrand leftist Premier Robert Fico a third term in power on the back of staunch anti-refugee rhetoric.
Arguing that jihadists masquerading as refugees could infiltrate the European Union, the populist leader has insisted on "monitoring every Muslim" in predominantly Catholic Slovakia after November\’s attacks in Paris.
His anti-refugee policies have echoed EU hawks like Czech President Milos Zeman, Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban and Poland\’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
"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 Bratislava for his Smer-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party, days ahead of the vote.
Leaders in the EU\’s poorer ex-communist east have mostly refused to accept refugees as Europe grapples with its worst migration crisis since World War II.
Fico has bolstered his popularity with one of the toughest refugee stances in Europe.
"I voted for Smer-SD. I like the way they lead this country. I find Fico trustworthy," a pensioner who identified herself only as Anna told AFP at a polling station in Bratislava.
However very few refugees have arrived in Slovakia, opting instead for richer nations.
Fellow pensioner Stefan Kralko told AFP: "I support him (Fico) because I feel safe."
"The future of our children is at stake, I\’ve seen the footage on TV, the situation in Europe is worsening," added a Fico voter in her fifties, who asked not to be identified.
With his Czech, Hungarian and Polish partners, Fico has vowed to help Bulgaria and Macedonia seal their borders with EU member Greece, should Athens fail to stem the tide of refugees from Turkey by mid-March.
As Slovakia gears up for the EU\’s rotating presidency in July, he starkly warned that "we have reached the point when… Greece is likely to be sacrificed for the sake of Schengen", referring to the 26-nation passport-free travel zone.
Fico also insists that Slovakia, a eurozone member since 2009, opposes further bailouts for troubled Greece, calling this "a red line for us".
But not all have been wooed by Fico\’s strident anti-refugee rhetoric.
Public sector workers who feel left behind by Slovakia\’s economic success 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".
Smer-SD holds 83 seats in the 150-member parliament, but analysts cite surveys predicting a cut to 65-70 amid concerns about bread and butter issues.
Analysts suggest that to clinch his third term, the 51-year-old leftist could relaunch a controversial coalition with the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) he first forged for 2006-10, or team up with moderate right-wing and centrist parties.
Commentators also admit the possibility, albeit unlikely, that a gaggle of right-wing and centrist liberal parties could scrape together a coalition to dethrone Fico.
"I chose the SaS party as I found their programme to be the best for entrepreneurs," Igor, a 25-year-old IT worker, said of the centre-right pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party as he cast his ballot in Bratislava.
An ex-communist known for his strong populist streak, Fico cut food taxes, boosted childcare allowances and hiked the minimum wage to engineer a quick recovery after philanthropist Andrej Kiska beat him to the presidency in 2014.
But his generous spending has not bloated public debt. Slovakia\’s debt-to-GDP ratio hovers around 53 percent, among the lowest in the 19-member eurozone.
Economic growth in the nation of 5.4 million people, which boasts the world\’s per capita biggest auto-making sector, hit a robust 3.5 percent in 2015.
Government projections show it is set to hover around 3.2-3.3 percent this year and next while unemployment sank to a 10-year low of 10.4 percent in January.
Polling stations opened at 0700 and close at 2200 local time (0600-2100 GMT) with an exit poll due after voting ends.
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