Lessons learned from a successful referendum which failed

by Romanita Iordache | ACCEPT Romania
Thursday, 11 October 2018 08:39 GMT

An LGBT activist reacts during an event organised by the LGBT rights group "Mozaiq" in downtown Bucharest, Romania, October 7, 2018. Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea via REUTERS

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The failure of a referendum to ban same-sex marriage shows that Romanians are not willing to be manipulated

Romanita Iordache is a human rights researcher and vice-president of LGBT+ rights group ACCEPT Romania

In the international media these days, Romania is usually mentioned in the context of erosion of the rule of law, endemic corruption and attacks on the free press and independent NGOs or violence against peaceful protesters.

This rather gloomy picture was set to repeat itself over last weekend when Romanians voted in a referendum to ban same-sex marriage.

Yet it failed.

The poll had been sparked when in 2015 the Coalition for Family filed a citizens’ initiative seeking to impose the definition of family as “the marriage between a man and a woman”.

The campaign became violent; the mere existence of rainbow and non-traditional families was depicted as an attack on the country’s national identity.

Homophobic messages were rampant in a country where until 2001 consensual homosexual activities were criminalised and there is still no measure to tackle hate crimes.

The Romanian government quickly dropped any guise of neutrality and impartiality in organising the poll by adopting an emergency ordinance three weeks before the referendum that extended the duration of the voting from one to two days. It also dismissed the integrated system of monitoring the votes which was meant to prevent electoral fraud. The governing coalition had hoped this would mean that the 30 percent needed for the referendum to succeed would be met.

In spite of a general illiberal trend in the region that regularly features “traditional values” as promoted by the Russian Federation, in spite of a very aggressive and heavily funded campaign and the support of the Orthodox Church and of neo-Protestant groups and in spite of claims that the referendum was rigged, just 21.1 percent of the population participated. It was a spectacular failure for the Coalition for Family and the parties in the governing coalition, which had signed memorandums of collaboration and mutual support just three years ago.

This is a well-deserved success for the more liberal parts of Romanian society who called for the referendum to be boycotted as the only possibility to express a political opinion – a refusal to legitimise a useless, immoral and illegal poll.

Does it mean that Romanians are more tolerant today? It is too early to answer. Romanians are certainly better informed and the referendum’s failure showed they are not willing to be manipulated; that any attempt to use an anti-European message will not be sanctioned. Romanians also showed that they understand the diversity of families in society and that the so-called “traditional family” invoked by the Coalition does not respond to the reality.

At ACCEPT we have advocated for more than 10 years for the adoption of legislation that would ensure the legal recognition of de facto families.

It took us years of strategic litigation, three hearings before the constitutional court and a hearing before the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). And with the boycott of the referendum it proved a spectacular success.

Today, almost all parliamentary parties say they will adopt a partnership bill, endorsing the draft prepared by ACCEPT and the Romanian National Council for Combating Discrimination, which was submitted for public debate in the aftermath of the CJEU hearings.

Adopting partnership legislation is a response to the clear message of the Romanian society: every family matters and every family deserves protection.

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