Slovakia – Low turnout thwarts anti-LGBT referendum

On Saturday, 7 February, Slovakia held a referendum on three questions pertaining to same-sex marriage with the aim of further restricting LGBT rights in the country. The referendum was initiated by the Christian right-wing organisation ‘Alliance for the Family’ (Aliancia za rodinu) after it gathered more than 400,000 signatures (50,000 more than required, ca. 8% of all citizens).[1] Despite being supported by the Catholic Church and a great number of other religious and civil society organisations, the referendum eventually failed to succeed due to low turnout.

Questions and result of the same-sex marriage referendum in Slovakia, 7 February 2015

Question Yes No Invalid
1 Do you agree that only a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? 94.50% 4.13% 1.36%
2 Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children? 92.43% 5.54% 2.01%
3 Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the children or their parents don’t agree? 90.32% 7.34% 2.33%
Registered voters: 4 411 529

Turnout: 21.41% (referendum not valid as turnout below 50%)

Source: http://www.volbysr.sk/en/data.html

The ‘Alliance for the Family’ was formed in late 2013 with the aim of enshrining the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman and strengthening the ‘traditional family. In April 2014 started to collect signatures for their referendum initiative after having been supported by the Slovak Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as a number of other churches and religious groups (the Catholic Church even had a letter in support read out during Sunday worship). Parties and political leaders on the other hand were hesitant to support the referendum – the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) was the only party to openly call for voting in favour of all questions, whereas others only asked their supporters to participate in the referendum without indication of how to vote.

Likewise, political leaders were hesitant to affiliate themselves with either side, careful not wanting to scare off potential voters (parliamentary elections will be held in March 2016) as well as not to worsen relations with the churches and grass-roots organisations. Prime Minister Robert Fico, leader of the left-wing SMER party, hinted at being in favour of some form of same-sex unions. However, in June 2014 (and thus while signatures were still being collected) the Slovak parliament – with the votes of Fico’s SMER which holds almost 2/3 of the seats – changed the constitution to re-define marriage as being a man and a woman (a move rumoured to be a deal with the KDH to push through further judicial reforms). President Kiska (independent, politically centre-right) initially declared that he would vote yes on the first two questions and no on the third, yet tried to relativise his statements after public criticism.

Presidents and referenda have difficult history in Slovakia. In 1997, president Michal Kováć and the government clashed over the scheduling of a referendum on NATO entry and inclusion of a question on introducing popular presidential elections. Kováć’s successor, Rudolf Schuster, on the other hand announced a referendum initiated by the opposition which called for the shortening of parliament’s term in 1999. Not only to avoid conflict, but certainly also to remain a more impartial position, rresident Kiska decided to put the questions before the constitutional court – a right the president only gained as part of the 1999-2001 constitutional reforms. In the end the Constitutional Court decided to exclude a fourth question from the ballot, judging it as unconstitutional.[2]

When the results started to come in, it soon became clear that the results of the referendum would be invalid due to low turnout – only the Námestovo Electoral District recorded slightly more than the 50% turnout that would have been necessary. Eventually, only 21.41% of voters cast their vote (i.e. only little more than twice the number of signatures submitted) which mirrors not only Slovak citizens’ turnout in the six previous referenda (only the 2003 referendum on EU entry achieved the required turnout) but also general voter apathy in the country. The referendum as such thus presents a dilemma for Slovak politics. Despite attracting much international criticism (most notably from Amnesty International), it is Slovakia’s first publicly initiated referendum and the ‘Alliance for Family’ is the largest civil organisation since the ‘Public Against Violence’ (the Slovak counterpart to the Czech ‘Civic Forum’) which toppled the Communist regime 25 years ago. Although the Alliance has thus managed what few others have managed to do – namely unite a not insignificant part of the public on a single issue and force it on the national agenda – its failure might eventually lead to even greater voter apathy.

It is not clear to what extent the results of the referendum can be interpreted with regard to the parliamentary elections next year. Superficially, it might appear that the KDH as the only party which actively supported the referendum might benefit (it with 8.8% it was the second largest party in the last elections), yet the parties on the political right in Slovakia are traditionally splintered and so are their support bases. It is thus unlikely that a single party may gain in a more multi-faceted electoral setting. The transformation of the Alliance into a new party is also unlikely – on Sunday representatives re-asserted their claim to be ‘citizen’s activists’ and not wanting to become politicians.

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[1] In the end 390,000 signatures were judged to be valid.
[2] The fourth question read: ‘Do you agree that no other form of cohabitation shall be awarded the special protection, the rights and the obligations which by legal norms are awarded to husbands and wives as of 1 March 2014 – in particular the recognition, registration or documentation as a form of cohabitation before public authorities, and the possibility of adopting the child of the other parent?’

See also: Croatia – Referendum criticised by the president and prime minister passed with large popular support

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