Croatians demand referendum to block gay marriage
Croatia is in constitutional uproar just weeks before it joins the European Union, after more than one-fifth of voters signed a petition calling for a referendum to block same-sex marriage.
Campaigners gathered more than 710,000 signatures in two weeks in a country of only 4.5m in support of a vote on changing the constitution to specify that marriage is the “life-long union of a man and a woman”.
Same-sex marriage has become a hot subject in many countries of the EU, which Croatia will join on July 1, and is facing a backlash in some more conservative central and east European states.
Romania is also debating amending its constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman; Hungary did so last year. But nowhere has the issue inflamed such passion as in Croatia, the mainly Catholic former Yugoslav republic.
The campaign grew out of parents’ concerns over a new sex education curriculum introduced last year, but shifted its focus after France moved to legalise gay marriage. Croatian campaign leaders say this was “imposed” on the French population despite significant opposition.
Opponents of the referendum in Croatia allege the Catholic church is backing and financing the campaign, which mobilised 6,000 volunteers to gather signatures in more than 2,000 locations across the country last month.
They suggest if the anti-gay marriage initiative is successful, campaigners will follow up with an attempt to ban abortion.
“[These campaigners] are really very dangerous, because they have a lot of money,” said Sanja Sarnavka, a long-time human rights activist.
But Zeljka Markic, founder of In the Name of the Family, a campaign group, denied the Catholic church was specifically backing it, or that it planned to move on to abortion.
A former journalist and doctor, Ms Markic said the campaign had received support from Catholics and some dioceses. But it was also backed by other religious communities, political parties and social groups, with thousands of people volunteering for free.
She denied opponents’ claims that her campaign was motivated by homophobia.
“Where have we said that we are scared, or that we hate, or we dislike [homosexuals]? I can’t find any example of this,” Ms Markic told the Financial Times. “But we have clearly said that in Croatia we don’t want the homosexual relationship to be defined as marriage, because it is not marriage.”
The campaigners are the first to have secured the right under Croatian law to hold a referendum, after gathering more than twice the required number of signatures. But they have sparked an intense debate among parliament, government, and legal experts over whether a referendum related to an issue of fundamental rights should proceed.
Zoran Milanovic, Croatia’s social democrat prime minister, told the FT there “probably ought to be a referendum, provided all the preconditions are met”.
“But then we trespass into unknown territory, because the constitution in Croatia has never been changed in this fashion,” he added.
Croatia removed a previous rule requiring a majority of all registered voters for a referendum result to be valid, to help guarantee a “yes” vote in a plebiscite on EU membership last year. That means the constitution could now be changed by a minority of the population.
Some parliamentarians have suggested a positive referendum vote would have to be ratified with a two-thirds parliamentary majority – the proportion required for parliament to amend the constitution – provoking ire from the campaign.
Parliament is now set to debate a motion stipulating referendums cannot be held on issues related to the constitution’s chapter on fundamental rights. But that would require a two-thirds majority to pass.
“I expect that a referendum will take place,” said Ms Markic. “I think it would really be a nonsense if one month before entering the EU we have a government that is not respecting our own constitution.”