In February 2015, Slovakia held a referendum against gay marriage with a record low turnout. Is the Slovak population so indifferent about human rights? Or does it rather have to do with political tactics? The discussion on gay rights might simply be a red herring to obscure other social and economical problems. Considering similar patterns in the region, the question arises: Should human rights be allowed to be used as a tool in political games?
The referendum, initiated by the civic group Alliance for the Family (AZR), gained some 400,000 signatures. It initially consisted of four questions, but one was ruled unconstitutional.The three questions finally posed by the referendum were:
- Whether same-sex couples should be prohibited from adopting and bringing up children;
- Whether marriage should be exclusively a union of one man and one woman;
- And whether parents should be able to prevent their children from taking part in lessons on sexual behavior and euthanasia in schools.
For a referendum in Slovakia to be valid, at least 50% of eligible voters must cast their votes. Slovakia has a miserable history with referendum turnout statistics: of the previous 7 referenda, the only one that was valid was the referendum on EU accession. Moreover, the LGBTI community in Slovakia actively encouraged people to express their indifference by choosing not to vote, thus ensuring the turnout would not cross the 50% threshold. They did not attend the discussions with initiators of the referendum either, saying that the campaign made a decent discussion impossible and was limited to repeating lies and half-truths. At the end, the turnout was 21,4% – much lower than what analysts had expected and polls had suggested (around 35%). Ultimately, the LGBTI community’s strategy to further discourage people already reluctant to vote proved to be a successful one.
It would be hard to differentiate between those that did not vote because they wanted to express their opposition, and those who simply did not care. However, AZR claimed victory as more than 90% of the votes were in favor of the referendum – that is, in opposition of gay rights. During the campaign the Church supported the initiators strongly. This, however, might have been a counter-productive strategy, as even many conservative voters nowadays wish for a separation between church and politics. In addition, Slovakia amended its constitution in 2014, to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, effectively banning same-sex unions and adoptions. Thus, this referendum did not have a real stake for the 6,5 million euros it cost. It did, however, reignite discourse on the topic.
In short, both sides consider the results a success. In a sense, if the referendum were to initiate debate across society and among political parties, it has achieved something. With the amended constitution, LGBTI groups now say the only way forward would be to adopt a law on registered partnership. The liberals have raised the issue of separation of church and politics. With parliamentary elections coming up in 2016, now is the time for seting the agenda, and these topics could become important in the election campaign.
But there are serious arguments against this optimism. The tendency in Central Europe points towards the other direction – that is, to less tolerance. EU rules allow each of its 28 members to pass their own laws on issues like marriage and adoption. As an exception in the region, the Czech Republic has accepted gay marriage since 2006. But the Hungarian constitution prohibits same-sex marriage and recognizes only registered partnerships. Croatia held a referendum in 2013, resulting in an amendment to the constitution, which banned same-sex marriage. However, at the same time, parliament passed a bill for legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
To answer the opening questions: Yes, the Slovak population is quite indifferent when it comes to referenda, but it does not mean ignorance regarding human rights. Indeed, political actors built their strategies on the “tradition” of not voting: the LGBTI advocates by encouraging people to stay home and AZR by interpreting the results as a success, although in real terms only a small minority voted in favour. Moreover, almost all political parties and senior politicians (including Prime Minister Robert Fico) could afford themselves to stay silent on the issue, stating that it is a civic (and not political) initiative, and thus did not take any political risk of losing their traditionally socially conservative voters. There is a risk, though, that the topic of gay marriage might be used as a red herring in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign. This could be used to avoid other more serious issues, which the Slovak parties cannot deal with – such as unemployment or poverty. On the other hand, this failed referendum can set the agenda for a more mature discussion about family and human rights in Slovakia. It is now up to the Slovak society to decide which way the discourse will turn.