Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Submitted by ILGA-Europe

Reposted from Balkan Insight:

The gay marriage vote is a warning shot fired across the bows of the government - showing that conservative groups are learning to mobilize support for their social agenda.

Last Sunday, Croatia held its third referendum in 23 years. In 1991, Croatian citizens voted on whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 on whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman alone.

Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two-thirds majority. The referendum was, in fact, a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, albeit not in the constitution. Furthermore, no move has been made towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages.

As a result, the initiators of the referendum, a previously unknown conservative group called “In the name of the family”, with support from the Catholic Church, achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but which has political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside have decried the result as evidence that Croatia is conservative and backward looking. However, this is a one-sided reading of the referendum result. Firstly, only ten European countries allow same-sex marriage, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states explicitly ban same-sex marriage: Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA, the main European group lobbying for equal rights for LGBT communities, measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes, Croatia ranks 13th among 49 countries in Europe. It is at a similar level to Austria and Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries in Central Europe except Hungary.

Second, attitudes in Croatia are not particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians, and opposition to opening marriage to homosexuals is not particularly pronounced. Few Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening up marriage to homosexual couples have been taken recently, but Eurobarometer data from 2006 indicate that the referendum does not make Croatia a conservative outlier.

A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) ranked Croatia as a country with a high level of LGBTs who have experienced discrimination and harassment. Sixty per cent said they had experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year. Only Latvia had a higher level. The levels are similar to Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the camp of EU countries that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but the levels largely correspond to Central and Southern European patterns. Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, as only 37.9 per cent voted. Thus, while support for the initiative was 65.87 per cent among those who voted, only a quarter of all Croatian voters actively endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. Turnout at the referendum also was not as low as it would seem. Turnout in the 2012 vote on joining the EU was less than 7 per cent higher; 946,433 voted in favor of the ban on same-sex marriages, while some 1,299.008 voted in favor of joining the EU. Referenda often have low turnouts as they usually only mobilize voters who are concerned with the specific issue at stake.

It would thus be a mistake to consider the turnout a failure for the Church and for the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia gained mainstream support for a social, rather than national, issue. While popular support for the “Homeland War” of the 1990s can be more easily generated, Croatian society, like other post-Yugoslav societies, has overall been unresponsive to socially conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past).

The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, while such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or gain a majority, it can dictate the debate.

Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning public use of the Serbian Cyrillic script, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to bypass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or the threat of them).

Slovenia has had similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that, among others, blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher, at 10 per cent of all registered voters, but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and if well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia than of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

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