By Tatiana Jancarikova
BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - Slovaks are likely to hand a third term at the polls on Saturday to Prime Minister Robert Fico, a left-wing nationalist whose anti-immigration views chime with neighbors Poland and Hungary.
With Slovakia due to take over the European Union's rotating presidency from July, giving it a bigger role in EU policy discussions over the bloc's migration crisis, the election is being watched closely in Brussels.
Fico's Smer party is set to lose its parliamentary majority after corruption scandals and protests by teachers and nurses about low pay, opinion polls show.
But a combination of popular welfare measures such as free train rides for students and pensioners and his opposition to immigration even by refugees should secure him well over 30 percent of the vote, pollsters say, enough to form a government with a coalition partner.
"The anti-immigration rhetoric combined with a few handouts is enough for Fico to win the election," said Samuel Abraham from the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts.
One early voter said there was a limited choice.
"I'd like someone else to replace Fico after two stints as prime minister but Slovakia is going to hold the EU presidency, the migration crisis will likely escalate this summer -- I can't see anyone else experienced enough taking the country's helm," said Marta, a 70-year old pensioner from Bratislava.
Fico, who dismisses multi-culturalism as "a fiction", has pledged never to accept EU quotas on relocating refugees who have flooded into Greece and Italy from Syria and beyond, and has launched a legal challenge to the plan.
He voted early, saying he would be "biting his nails at the party headquarters", but he would respect the result.
Polls will close at 10 p.m. (1600 ET). Exit polls are expected to be published immediately after voting ends, but counting will run into the night.
Fico has had poor relations with an often-critical Slovak press and opposes EU sanctions on Russia, but has not sought constitutional changes as in Poland and Hungary.
Slovakia is one of the euro zone's most financially sound states, popular with foreign investors, particularly car makers.
But unemployment of more than 10 percent and vast regional differences in wealth, as well as low healthcare and education standards, have disappointed many voters.
Opponents portray Fico as a populist who ignores the need to reform schooling and healthcare, seen by critics as inefficient and corrupt. However, most opposition parties agree with Fico's views that Muslims cannot integrate into predominantly Catholic Slovakia and pose a security threat, although they use less aggressive language.
A strong showing by center-right parties such as Yale-educated lawyer Radoslav Prochazka's Siet (Net) could still give them a chance to form an anti-Fico coalition that might tone down the anti-immigration rhetoric.
But any deal may include the libertarian SaS party, whose refusal to provide guarantees for a bailout of Greece brought down the previous center-right government in 2012.
(Reporting by Tatiana Jancarikova; Editing by Eric Meijer and Alexander Smith)