By Umberto Bacchi
TBILISI, March 29 (Openly) - An LGBT+ friendly lawyer is on course to become Slovakia's first female president on Saturday in a vote activists hope will mark a turning point for gay and transgender rights in one of Europe's most socially conservative countries.
Zuzana Caputova, an anti-graft campaigner and political novice, is leading opinion polls by a wide margin as Slovaks head to the ballot box for the presidential election run-off, after she won the first round.
During the campaign the divorced mother of two has voiced personal support for civil partnerships and adoption by gay couples - a first in a country whose politicians have long pandered to traditional family values.
"She started to use more inclusive language ... this is a breakthrough in Slovak politics," said Martin Macko, director of Bratislava-based LGBT+ rights group Inakost.
Slovakia is one of the lowest scoring countries in the European Union for LGBT+ rights, according to a ranking by rights group ILGA. It does not allow gay marriages or civil unions, or adoptions by same-sex couples.
Many LGBT+ people, particularly those living outside the capital, fear family and friends will reject them if they come out - something compounded by often heated political rhetoric that stigmatises them, said Macko.
"LGBT people are pictured like a different group with completely different values," he said.
Gay rights were not a key campaign pledge for Caputova, a 45-year-old pro-European liberal who is running on a mainly anti-corruption ticket.
They became an electoral issue as opponents seized upon her views to rally Catholic voters, said Michal Vasecka, a sociologist at the Bratislava Policy Institute, a think tank.
"Her enemies tried to convince people that this was a key issue," he said.
But so far the strategy seem not to have paid off for Caputova's opponents.
Last week opinion polls put Caputova, who has said she considers compassion and love for minorities to be Christian values, at 60.5 percent, well ahead of her challenger, Maros Sefcovic, backed by the ruling Smer party, on 39.5 percent.
The figures are symptomatic of a wider shift in eastern Europe's traditionally conservative Catholic electorate towards the more liberal views espoused by Pope Francis, said Vasecka.
A new party in Poland run by an openly gay politician vaulted into third place in a opinion polls in February, while a bill allowing same-sex marriages is being discussed in the Czech Republic.
In Slovakia, a 2015 referendum to cement a ban on gay marriages and child adoptions failed to attract enough voters.
"We are just really exhausted and tired of all these politicians sharing hate," said Roman Samotny, who owns a gay bar in Bratislava and heads the LGBT+ website Queer Slovakia.
"It is always about us and we don't understand why because we don't think we are the main problem of this country."
Slovakia's president does not wield day-to-day power, so even if Caputova were to win, legal reforms to foster gay rights remain unlikely in the short term, said Macko.
But her success has already helped change public perceptions of gay people and could usher in a new way of doing politics by showing that winning elections and promoting LGBT+ rights are not incompatible, he said. "It will not a revolution, but we hope things will slowly change for the better."
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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