BRATISLAVA - A year after a homophobic double murder, Slovakia's LGBTQ community is concerned about the increase in hate speech ahead of elections on Saturday in a country where gay people have few legal rights.
Former prime minister Robert Fico, whose left-wing Smer-SD party is set to win the parliamentary vote, is infamous for his frequent verbal attacks on the community.
He has labelled adoption by same-sex couples, which is not possible in Slovakia, a "perversion".
The latest campaign video by Smer-SD features a character resembling liberal PS party leader Michal Simecka wrapped in a rainbow flag pondering which toilet to choose during a school recess.
"While the progressive Misho (Michal) decides whether he is a boy, a girl or a helicopter today, for us gender ideology in schools is unacceptable and marriage is a unique union between a man and a woman," a smiling Fico says to the camera.
"I will certainly never be a supporter of them (LGBTQ people) being able to marry, as we see in other countries," Fico told a press conference recently.
As same-sex partnerships are not regulated by law, LGBTQ people in Slovakia are not legally considered related to their partner and cannot, for example, obtain information about their health, or inherit.
Slovakia also does not recognise marriages contracted abroad.
- 'Spread of hatred' -
Martin Macko, executive director of the Inakost ("Otherness") Initiative, an umbrella organisation of Slovak gay and lesbian organisations, voiced concern about the rhetoric from Smer-SD.
"Smer-SD not only uses the spread of hatred towards LGBTQ people in its campaign but also pledged in its programme to enforce legislation that prohibits talking about LGBTQ people in schools," Macko told AFP.
"We expect him to push for similar laws as (Prime Minister Viktor) Orban in Hungary or (Republican governor) Ron DeSantis in Florida," he added.
Only two of the 25 parties running for parliament offer promises of better rights for the LGBTQ community and other Slovak parties have used similar rhetoric to Smer-SD in their own campaigns to attract votes.
LSNS, a far-right opposition party, uses slogans and posters promising to protect the country from LGBTQ and gender "ideology".
Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) chairman Milam Majersky recently labelled LGBTQ "ideology" a "scourge" for Slovakia.
Former centrist prime minister Igor Matovic, whose OLaNO party is struggling to make it into parliament after a dive in popularity, has also taken to social media to criticise LGBTQ people.
"Seventy three genders? Sick. Convert 12-year-old girls to boys? Sick," he wrote in one post.
- 'Don't expect any change' -
Apart from the SaS party, which according to the polls will struggle to make it into parliament, Progressive Slovakia (PS) is the only liberal party that has a chance of being part of the new Slovak government.
Its pre-election programme promises "the extension of marriage to all couples, which we consider to be the true fulfilment of the principle of equality".
Even if liberal or progressive parties could form the new Slovak government, there is no guarantee that their election promises would become policy.
"I am afraid that it will turn out the way it has always been in Slovakia," Juraj Martiny, director of a public relations firm, told AFP.
"To create a governing majority in parliament, they (PS) will join forces with more conservative parties and the agenda in favour of LGBTQ people will be forgotten, as a concession to these parties to form a coalition," said the 46-year-old, who is gay.
His words are echoed by Hana Fabry, a 60-year-old author and lesbian activist from Bratislava.
"I don't expect any change.
"But I want and need to believe that if the PS party comes to power, it will not throw the rights of LGBTQ people in the trash during negotiations on participation in the government, as is the norm in Slovakia," Fabry said.
"Hate speech used by politicians also finds support in a large part of the population," she added.
- 'Nothing to take away' -
In a 2022 survey by Inakost, more than 77 percent of gays and lesbians in Slovakia said the most serious problem faced by the LGBTQ community was the lack of legal recognition of same-sex partnerships.
But according to the latest study by GLOBSEC, an international think tank, 63 percent of Slovaks do not want equal rights for gay people.
Slovakia, a predominantly Catholic country, was shaken by a double murder in front of a gay bar in Bratislava in October 2022.
A 19-year-old man, the son of a prominent member of the extreme right political party Vlast, gunned down two young men before killing himself.
The murderer posted on Twitter, rebranded X, immediately after the crime that he acted out of hatred towards LGBTQ people.
In the aftermath of the attack, there were calls for reforms but little was done.
Martiny held out little hope that the election would change that.
"The state has not done anything for us so far... Where there is nothing, there is nothing to take away."