Monday, 2 December 2013

The referendum that has prevented marriage equality

Yesterday was a sad day for Croatia's LGBT population, as the results of the 1st December constitutional referendum show that 65.87% of voters have decided that the institution of marriage should only be between a man and a woman, thus effectively banning same-sex marriages from ever taking place in the country.

The be-all-end-all question was "Are you in favor of the constitution of the Republic of Croatia being amended with a provision stating that marriage is matrimony between a woman and a man?", and your choices were "za" if you're for it, and "protiv" if you're against it. As of 30th November 2013, article 62 of the Croatian constitution stated: "The family shall enjoy special protection of the State. Marriage and legal relations in marriage, common-law marriage and families shall be regulated by law." Thanks to 946,433 supporters (65.87% of all voters), as opposed to 481,534 (33.51%), that article is set to be amended.

This referendum came about thanks to the 749,316 signatures gathered by U ime obitelji ("In the name of the family"), whose most notable member claims that all the steps they took in their campaign were "not aimed against anyone". Yet by voting "for" this amendment in the Croatian constitution, 65.87% of referendum voters have given their approval to deny same-sex couples in their country access to marriage.

The legal effects of this referendum result will not seem obvious at first, since the law recognising same-sex unions, adopted in 2003, which grants such unions certain rights, still stands. And it's possible that the rights of same-sex couples could be enhanced, regardless of this referendum's outcome. But, needless to say, should Croatia's LGBT population and their straight allies in the more distant future seek once again marriage equality for same-sex couples, they will be constitutionally denied. And given how polarised the political climate in the country is between the left and right, supporters of this successful referendum (blatantly rightwing and conservative) will always be able to refer to the positive result therein in order to undermine, discredit and even disparage their mainly leftwing and liberal opponents.

I have no doubt that the social and legal consequences of this referendum, both in the near and distant future, will be seen both in Croatia and further afield. Even if the traditionalist groups do nothing to oppose enhancing the rights of same-sex couples in the country, the resulting amendment in the constitution will create a kind of two-tier system of unions, in which one type of couple can have their pairing recognised as a marriage, while a different type of pairing will have to use a different formula. And just outside Croatia, one should expect likeminded organisations and politicians in Serbia and nearby to be inspired by this result, even if they choose not to go down the route of calling for a constitutional referendum in their own countries. Instead, rightwing politicians in neighbouring countries may use the example of the recent constitutional referendum in Croatia to argue in their national parliament that the people of their country are similarly conservative re: marriage and related issues such as family, and in turn vote against recognising same-sex unions altogether!

There is a possibility that the effects of this referendum will not just affect the LGBT population, but also ethnic minorities, particularly the Serb minority, which has been collectively blamed and condemned by Croat nationalists because of the recent war in the country. As I reported earlier this year, there has been an initiative in Vukovar to remove bilingual signposts and placques (in Croatian Latin and Serbian Cyrillic) that have been put up around the city within the last two months. The main protagonist of this initiative is the Stožer za obranu hrvatskog Vukovara ("Headquarters for the defense of Croatian Vukovar"), who promote the view that local Serbs are collectively guilty (be it through active collaboration or passive complicity) for the attack on the city by the then Yugoslav People's Army and various Serb nationalist paramilitaries in 1991, and because of that, they don't don't deserve to see their alphabet officially around Vukovar, as that would, according to the Stožer and likeminded people throughout Croatia, represent an offence to the victims of the afore-mentioned attack and atrocities that took place at that stage of the Croatian war.

More recently, the same self-styled Stožer has started gathering as many signatures as it can, just like U ime obitelji before them (see here and here), to get a referendum to amend ethnic minority rights! Personally, at this point in time, I think they probably won't succeed in getting such a referendum, like U ime obitelji managed to achieve (see here), but I could be wrong. We'll find out soon.

Therefore, this referendum has put Croatia onto a slippery slope, leading to a situation in which disenfranchisement of any whole section of the country's population with a public seal of approval (like in this case, thanks to 65.87% of referendum voters) will be the norm. That's an example of "majority tyranny", a scary thought indeed. And let's be in no doubt about the possibility that neighbouring countries, and countries further afield too, will follow. The question here is: how far will all this go?

One last thing: let's look at the referendum question again: "Are you in favor of the constitution of the Republic of Croatia being amended with a provision stating that marriage is matrimony between a woman and a man?" To me, it's like pointing a gun at someone's head and asking them, "Do you want to live?" To which one would tremblingly answer, "Yes, but preferably not by your terms!"

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