In recent years, Romanian political elites and electorate have engaged in a debate over the right of sexual minorities to establish a legally recognized family. This is a tense subject in a country with traditionalist social values. The matter has involved in different ways large parts of the public, the governing coalition, the presidency and the Constitutional Court and is on its way to becoming the subject of a national referendum. It has also been used as a political tool by the governing Social Democrat Party (PSD) and junior coalition partners, the Alliance of Liberal Democrats (ALDE) to pursue a diminished involvement of the president in the organisation of referenda and to substantiate their place as conservatives on the social dimension of ideological positioning. In the present text, I explain the context in which the prospect of ‘same-sex’ marriage has gathered more attention than ever before, some effects it has had on party life and its potential side-effect in diminishing some powers of the president.
3 million citizens and a gay couple
Two contrasting events have challenged Romanians’ social values in the last decade. A gay couple comprised of American and Romanian citizens married in Belgium and requested the recognition of their marital status in Romania together with all the ensuing legal rights. This would include residence rights for the American citizen. The couple started their quest for recognition in 2013 and has still not received a decision from the Romanian authorities. The matter has currently been submitted by the Romanian Constitutional Court to the European Court for Human Rights. An opinion is expected on how to deal with a marriage that is not accepted according to organic law in Romania without breaching the right for free movement on EU territory and the right to family life and privacy of all citizens according to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
During this debate, it has become apparent that the constitutional provision defining a family as being ‘founded on the mutually agreed marriage between husbands’ (Romanian Constitution, Art. 48) is a source for conflicting interpretations on who the husbands could be. Consequently, an NGO named ‘The Coalition for the Family’ gathered 3 million signatures to initiate a referendum to change the understanding of family into ‘mutually agreed marriage between a woman and a man’. In their quest, they had the support of the state wide network of Orthodox churches. This latter initiative was endorsed by 2/3 of the members of the Chamber of Deputies and the governing coalition who announced that a referendum on this issue will be organised in the spring of 2018. Considering the large scope of disapproval for LGBT rights in Romania, chances are that the popular vote will lead to a change of the Constitution. The movement to change the Constitution has now become synonymous with ‘anti- LGBT rights’.
No country for gay (wo)men
From right to left, political elites have been united in their defence of what is now being called ‘the traditional family’, blurring already confused ideological identities even further. PSD chairman, Liviu Dragnea, declared from the initial stages of this debate that his party would back the proposal to change the Constitution. In early April, he also announced that PSD will organise a large march of support for this proposal. Junior coalition partner ALDE is also in support of this change, similar to center – right legislative partners, the Democratic Union of Hungarians In Romania (UDMR). The main opposition party, the National Liberal Party (PNL) declared itself in favour of a restrictive definition of the family. The quest of the ‘Coalition for the Family’ was also endorsed by the parliamentary Popular Movement Party (PMP) as the preferred Christian-Orthodox path to society building.
The smaller opposition party, centre – left newcomers Save Romania Union (USR), went through its own internal struggle on what side to choose. Following a decision not to support the change of constitution – an exclusive choice among parliamentary parties – the USR founding chairman resigned in protest. The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, had a reserved position on the matter. He declared himself in favour of supporting the rights of all minorities, making more acceptable references to religious and ethnic minorities, thus allowing ambiguous interpretations.
In short, all parliamentary parties, except (most of the) USR, support the elimination of a possible interpretation of the Constitution that marriage between same – sex partners is acceptable. The referendum is a safe bet for the governing coalition and a platform for self-promotion. In the short and medium run, the ‘same-sex marriage’ debate serves to further dilute the identification of an opposition to the current government’s policies. A more progressive stance on this matter has not been actively picked up by any party.(1) No politician seems willing to risk the estrangement of a largely conservative electorate.
Organising referenda, the fast – forward way
To organise the referendum to change the Constitution, decision – makers have to overcome another legalistic hurdle. The current legislative majority passed an amendment to the ‘Referendum Law’ that would allow it to arrange such proceedings without any potential contestation and delays from the presidency. The Constitution (Art. 150) states that the power to call for referenda lies with the president at the government’s proposal, 1/4 of MPs or 500 000 citizens. However, the current ‘Referendum Law’ calls for an individual new law for every such instance, providing the date and scope of a plebiscite. As do all laws, this would reach the president for promulgation. S/he could then contest it once or send it for revision with the Constitutional Court, thus delaying the process. The amended law would no longer demand a new piece of legislation for the organisation of a referendum, thus circumventing the intervention of the president and expediting the process. The possibility to so change the ‘Referendum Law’ is now being analysed by the Constitutional Court.
PSD chairman Dragnea announced that the ‘referendum on the definition of family’ would be carried under the amended ‘Referendum Law’. Eliminating the president from the organisation of a referendum can be read as a depletion of his institutional leverages of power. Apart from its immediate effect on delivering a faster resolution to the demands of traditionalists, this change to the law would bring PSD another point in its battle with the president.
All in all, the foci of conservatism will receive long term satisfaction. With this pragmatic move, PSD has underwired its collaboration with the Orthodox Church, while keeping opposition parties in silent approval and the president disarmed.
- The small non- parliamentary Green Party is the sole to endorse rights for the LGBT community.