By Tatiana Jancarikova
NITRA, Slovakia (Reuters) - Slovakia's leftist Prime Minister Robert Fico promised to protect voters from international terrorism and unveiled a billion euro welfare plan on Saturday as he launched campaign for a third term in office.
Fico has kept a strong grip on the Slovak political life and is tipped to win reelection in the March 5 vote, leading opinion polls by over 20 percentage points ahead of the closest rival.
The 51-year old lawyer has a strong following among mostly poorer Slovaks who have gained from the euro zone country's economic catch-up with western neighbors in the past years, allowing the government to share a rising tax intake through welfare while keeping solid fiscal management.
He has also defended what he sees as the national interests of this country of 5.4 million, launching a legal challenge against an EU decision to redistribute asylum-seekers across the union.
That has alienated European partners but resonated strongly in Slovakia's relatively closed society that has only a tiny Muslim minority and just 154 asylum-seekers this year. It also helped keep far-right challengers at bay.
"The security of Slovakia and its citizens is our priority, claims by migrants come after that. We will protect Slovakia, you can count on us," Fico told a congress of his Smer party on Saturday.
In his anti-immigration stance, Fico has found a friend in neighboring Hungary, which has often been at odds with Bratislava over the rights of a 450,000 strong ethnic Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
Fico angered human rights activists last month when he said his government was monitoring every Muslim in the country in the wake of Paris shootings. [ID: nL8N13B1LR]
Like Orban, Fico has also criticized EU sanctions against Russia that were imposed because of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Fico suffered his biggest setback when he lost the 2014 election for presidency, a partially ceremonial post, to businessman and philanthropist Andrej Kiska.
But that was not a devastating blow for the veteran who has served as prime minister first in 2006-2010 and again since 2012.
A poll by the MVK agency in November put support for Smer at 36 percent, from 44 percent in the last election. The opposition is fragmented among nationalist, Christian, ethic Hungarian and liberal parties that would find it hard to form an alternative.
Trained during the communist regime and a former Communist Party member, Fico built his Smer party on the public disenchantment with painful pro-market reforms of early 2000s.
Rather than pushing for agendas like environment protection and human rights, Smer defends poorer Slovaks and even social conservatives. Last year, Smer supported a bid by the conservative opposition to ban gay marriage in the constitution.
ECONOMY SUPPORTS SPENDING PLANS
At the Saturday party congress, Fico announced a plan to raise pensions and let pensioners and students ride busses for free, adding to free train rides introduced last year.
He also announced a plan to create 100,000 new jobs by 2020, which would cut the unemployment rate by a third.
The measures won't divert the government from its march toward a zero public finance deficit in 2018, Fico said, from 2.74 percent of GDP this year.
The government has already halved the sales tax on staple foods to 10 percent from next year. It also plans to raise the minimum monthly wage from 380 euros to 405 euros from January, above the former richer federation partner Czech Republic with which Slovaks keep comparing themselves.
The economy is expected to grow 3.1 percent next year, same as this year.
(Editing by Jan Lopatka and Tom Heneghan)