Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is defying EU officials in the migrant crisis – and may win re-election on Saturday.
Slovak voters will decide whether to give his Smer-Social Democracy party another four years in office. The BBC’s Rob Cameron witnessed his magnetic effect on a crowd in a packed sports hall in Bratislava.
Smer’s campaign stresses the need to protect largely Christian Slovakia from Muslim migrants – yet asylum requests remain in the low hundreds.
The Fico government has also mounted a legal challenge to the EU’s migrant quota scheme.
Mr Fico cuts a neat, almost pugilistic figure, like a retired boxer still drawn to the ring.
At the rally he is immaculate as always, in a sharp suit and sporting a crew-cut.
The perpetual scowl he reserves for journalists disappears, and the friendlier, fluffier Fico emerges into the spotlight.
Economic fast lane
As giant video screens behind him display scenes of a bucolic, picture-perfect Slovakia, he tells his crowd they’ve never had it so good.
“We’ve got the highest economic growth in the European Union. And that’s not my government saying that – it’s the European Commission,” Mr Fico tells the audience.
“Unemployment is at its lowest level for the last seven years. Our public finances are in perfect shape,” he goes on.
“Some say you can’t eat numbers. We say – yes you can, if they mean good economic growth that allows concrete social improvements.”
He reminds the crowd that his government has introduced free train travel for students and pensioners, as well as lower sales tax (VAT) on food.
There is no mention of a recent teachers’ strike or allegations of tax fraud being traded between government and opposition politicians.
The rows of heads in front of me nod in approval; many, perhaps most of those heads are grey-haired. These are Smer’s core voters: elderly, low-income, less well-educated.
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Then the prime minister changes tack. This idyllic vision of a Slovakia enjoying unprecedented prosperity is under threat, he says.
“Let’s face it ladies and gentlemen, the borders of Schengen are like Emmental cheese – thousands of people are entering Europe unchecked,” he says.
Most border checks were scrapped under Schengen, the EU’s passport-free travel regime covering most of Europe.
Mr Fico says he has just returned from inspecting the Greek-Macedonian border – a pressure point where more than 10,000 migrants are now stuck.
“The Supreme Allied Commander of Nato said yesterday that thousands of terrorists and Islamic State fighters are entering Europe with migrants. So security will remain priority number one,” he says.
The big screens behind him read “Chranime Slovensko” (we’re protecting Slovakia).
“I can tell you we will never – under a quota system – bring one single Muslim to Slovakia,” Mr Fico says, his voice rising.
“And we will never – not even voluntarily – create a self-contained Muslim community, because it would represent a serious security risk.”
At this the arena breaks into thunderous applause. It is the only ovation in his five-minute speech.
A short distance away, in Bratislava’s bustling Obchodna Street, I went looking for something called the Islamic Foundation of Slovakia. It was easy to miss – I passed the right alleyway twice. At last I found it – no signs, just a bell on a white door.
I was greeted by Mohamad Hasna, a Syrian-born legal translator who made Bratislava his home in 1991. The organisation he co-founded represents the rights of Slovakia’s 5,000-strong Muslim community, mostly students, businessmen and converts.
The building is also home to a small prayer room on the ground floor; officially there are no mosques in Slovakia, as Islam is not a recognised religion.
“We are asked so many times, by the politicians, by the intellectuals, by the media, to show our loyalty to the country. But also we would like to have the same rights. Nothing more, nothing less,” Mr Hasna said.
The foundation owns a small piece of land near the city centre – a vacant plot for a mosque that will almost certainly not be built any time soon, regardless of whether or not Robert Fico forms the next government.