Anti-Gay Marriage Ballot Has Croatian Liberals Worried

Submitted by ILGA-Europe

Reposted from Balkan Insight:

Ahead of Sunday’s gay marriage referendum, the centrist, pro-EU establishment feels wrong-footed by the strength of a conservative grassroots campaign.

“Everybody knows what marriage is. That hasn’t changed since the New Testament and shouldn't be changed now, just because an extreme minority wants it to,” a protester attending a recent anti-gay marriage rally in Osijek said.

He and his supporters have succeeded in organising a referendum in the EU’s newest member state on whether to change the constitution to outlaw even the possibility of gay marriage.

On Sunday, December 1, Croats will vote whether to add a line to their constitution defining marriage as an exclusive union of a woman and a man.

“Do you support the introduction of a clause to the Croatian Constitution that defines marriage as life-long union between a woman and a man?” is the question facing voters.

If, as many predict, most people say “yes”, the constitution will have to be amended.

Anti-gay marriage activists organised in a campaign called “In the name of the family” insisted on the referendum, despite warnings from top officials and other public figures that the change could damage Croatia’s image in human rights terms.

A “yes” vote would also undermine the country’s drive in recent years to improve the rights of same-sex couples, which was one of the conditions for Croatia joining the EU on July 1.

Several days ahead of the referendum, the country is divided into “for” and “against” camps, each busily organising rallies against the other.

“I want to testify to the values I live by and fight for. Marriage, children and a family are priceless values for me,” a volunteer called Josipa told a rally in the eastern city of Osijek last week.


Pro-gay marriage activists.

But opponents are equally vehement. “We have to vote ‘against’, and say ‘no’ to ignorance, prejudice, stereotypes and stupidity,” a Zagreb student said in a video message posted recently on the Internet.

The referendum is the result of several months of anti-gay marriage campaigning by rightist parties and the socially conservative Catholic Church.

Not many took the initiative seriously when activists first started to collect signatures on the streets, requesting the referendum, on May 12.

To call a referendum in Croatia, supporters have to collect the signatures of 10 per cent of the voting population, which means gathering almost 400,000 names.

But less then two weeks after it started, the initiative announced that enough people had already signed the petition demanding a referendum.

After the centre-left government, led by the Social Democratic party, which supports gay rights, expressed doubts over whether all the signatures were valid, “In the name of the family” continued to collect them for several more days.

On May 26, the initiative said it had collected 749,316 requests for the referendum, thus making the vote inevitable.

Until recently, Croatia was viewed as a regional leader in the provision of same-sex rights, offering the best legal environment for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

“Croatian officials continued to gradually improve the human rights situation for LGBTI people,” a study by the European branch of International Lesbian and Gay Association, ILGA, noted in May this year.

Since it took the power in January 2012, the centre-left government has declared its intention to continue improving LGBT rights, and provide same-sex couples with the same rights as heterosexual couples.


Promotional poster of anti-gay marraige campaign.

But somewhere along the line, the government appears to have raced ahead of public opinion, creating an opportunity for conservatives to go on the counter-offensive.

“Marriage is the union alone of man and woman,” is the main line of the “In the name of the family” campaigners, and, if they get their way in the referendum, the result could impact on the relationship of the state towards LGBTI community for years to come.

Immediately after the anti-gay marriage campaigners collected the required number of signatures, the ruling Social Democrats said they would look at parliamentary procedures to avoid having to call a referendum.

Pedja Grbin, president of parliament’s Committee on the Constitution, in June said that parliament had to vote on whether to call the referendum, and MPs could dismiss it.

But, after legal experts warned that the country could face a constitutional crisis if that happened, the ruling coalition abandoned its attempts.

Anti-referendum civic initiatives then asked the Constitutional Court to define the referendum question as unconstitutional, in the sense that it discriminated against a minority, but the Constitutional Court declined to do so.

It said parliament had to formally ask it to assess the constitutional aspect of the referendum question, but parliament has not done so.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic, who opposes the referendum, insisted that the Constitutional Court should answer that question by itself.

The referendum was, therefore, called on November 8, even though no authorized body had assessed whether the referendum question did in fact violate minority rights.

The referendum will be the third held in Croatia’s recent history.


Pro-gay marriage activists call people to vote "no" on referendum question.

The first was on May 19 1991, when Croats voted for independence from Yugoslavia, with 94 per cent saying “yes” on a turnout of 84 per cent.

On January 22, 2012, voters balloted on whether Croatia should join the EU, with 64 per cent voting “yes” on a turnout of 44 per cent.

The public is deeply polarised over the latest question, with debate humming on social networks such as Facebook.

Some mainstream media outlets, like the centre-left-oriented Jutarnji list, have openly suspended any claim to impartiality and are heavily engaged in the “against” campaign, offering free use of the newspaper’s website to activists and campaigners.

Many artists and pop musicians, including the popular singer Severina, have also joined the “against” campaign.

So has the President of Croatia, Ivo Josipovic, who was among the first to come out in favour of the “against” campaign.

“A clause on defining marriage as a union between woman and a man doesn't belong in the constitution. I will go to the referendum and vote against it,” Josipovic said on November 4.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic also appealed to people to vote against.

“I call on citizens to vote for everybody's right to their personal happiness and choice, which means to vote against this referendum initiative, which endangers that right,” Milanovic said on November 24.

“This referendum is senseless, but is, unfortunately, allowed by the constitution,” Milanovic added.

Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic also urged voters to go to vote against, saying that it “isn’t enough to abstain”.

However, the Archbishop of Zagreb, Josip Bozanic, declared the exact opposite in his pastoral letter, published on November 20.

“Let everybody vote “yes“ with pride and joy, because this confesses our Christian faith and does good to our families, children and new generations,” the Catholic Primate said.

Under referendum law, there is no minimum threshold in terms of turnout for a referendum result to be valid and binding.

Meanwhile, liberals in Croatia fear the result of the referendum on gay marriage could just be the start.

Veterans of the independence war of the 1990s have now started to collect signatures for another referendum, on curbing the rights of ethnic minorities to public use of their language and script.

Prime Minister Milanovic has hinted that the government may now try to scrap these votes altogether.

Referring to Sunday’s vote, he expressed the hope “that soon, similar referendums will not be possible any more”.

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