Election The Failed Slovak Referendum on “Family”: Voters’ Apathy and Minority Rights in Central Europe
The referendum on family initiated by a group of Conservative NGOs has divided the Slovak citizenry into two opposing camps. Despite the conflictual nature of the campaign, the referendum has demonstrated that Slovakia is ready to handle civil-society deliberations on a large scale, which could be a sign indicating the gradual maturing of Slovak civil society.
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 4, 2015
The referendum on family initiated by a group of Conservative NGOs has divided the Slovak citizenry into two opposing camps. Despite the conflictual nature of the campaign, the referendum has demonstrated that Slovakia is ready to handle civil-society deliberations on a large scale, which could be a sign indicating the gradual maturing of Slovak civil society. Even though the referendum failed to attract the necessary voter turnout of 50 %, one could barely speak of any victors on either side of the debate. The true ‘victor’ is the group of passive voters, who, albeit unintentionally, might have assumed the democratic function of protecting minorities against the ‘tyranny of the masses’.
The aim of the referendum was to secure popular backing to cement the existing legal definition of marriage as a union between a woman and a man, uphold the legal right for only heterosexual couples to adopt orphaned or abandoned children and liberalize sexual education at schools by providing parents with an option to opt out from compulsory national curriculum on sexual education. It was initiated by a group of more than 100 mostly Christian NGOs, known together as the `Alliance for Family’. The referendum was thus presented as a civic initiative and more than 400.000 signatures were collected and registered at the Office of President (well above the required 350.000) in support of the cause on August 26, 2014. Despite being consistently self-profiled as an independent, civic association, their formal links to the Catholic Church of Slovakia have been revealed by the media.
The Church has provided the Alliance with moral as well as financial support and has effectively used its dense network of churches and church schools to raise awareness about the plebiscite. Even though there has been a sustained decline in the number of Slovak citizens professing some sort of a belief in God, Slovakia still remains one of Europe’s more religious countries. According to the last census (2011), the Catholics comprise 62 % of the population, with atheists only amounting to 13 %. This makes the Slovak Catholic Church a potentially very powerful political player, the influence of which might not necessarily need to be exercised directly. Those political parties that rely on the Christian-Catholic vote, might avoid all action that could be perceived as going against the interests of the Church fearing potential reciprocal action that might affect their vote share.
On the other side of the divide stood the proponents of a more inclusive definition of marriage and, on a more general level, those who questioned the need to vote on issues that do not challenge the existing legal status quo. Marriage has been defined as a union between a man and a woman in the 2014 constitutional amendment passed by the ruling populist social democrats (SMER) and the Christian democrats (KDH). At the same time, adoptions by same-sex couples are not legally permitted either. Given that this group of citizens perceived the referendum as a one-sided civic initiative challenging the position of a particular minority, they have publicly renounced their position as an ‘opposition camp’ to the proponents of the referendum. They argued that by doing so, they would legitimize the plebiscite they believed challenged human rights which, according to the Slovak constitution, should not be subject to popular voting. The LGBTI minority is represented by the largely under-funded NGO called Otherness (Inakost), who have announced that boycotting referendum was the best strategy to be pursued by those who did not agree with the questions raised. The reasons were twofold: first, non-participation was considered as the most effective means of questioning the very legitimacy of the referendum rather than merely voting No; and, second, non-participation increased the likelihood of not achieving the necessary turnout for the referendum to be valid.
Finally then, it is worth to point out that the legal rights of the LGBTI minority are rather limited in the post-transition Slovak Republic. Unlike her Czech counterpart, the Slovak Republic still has no legislation allowing for same-sex partnerships in any form or adoptions by same-sex couples. Same-sex couples face practical difficulties in everyday life. This includes heavier tax burden than their mixed-sex counterparts, inaccessibility of respective partner’s health records in cases of emergency, inheritance-related problems, etc. Despite that sexuality-related discrimination in employment is prohibited by the Anti-Discrimination Act of 2004 (Col. 365/2004), most major political players are very reluctant to take the LGBTI agenda further and ease the struggles LGBTI individuals need to put up with on a regular basis.
The aim of this report is to summarize the events that led up to the 2015 Slovak referendum on family, briefly analyze the campaign and present the results of the referendum. In the concluding discussion, the author speculates what the reasons for the relatively low turnout might be, despite the sustained mobilization of Christian voters.
The Alliance came together in December 2013 and was, at least within the Conservative circles, welcomed as a long-waited civic response to the gradual activation of pro-LGBTI activists both domestically and on the European scene. The proclaimed aim of the Alliance was not to challenge any particular group of citizens and deprive them of their rights but rather safeguard the traditional definition of marriage and family, which they consider to be an important part of their faith. This means that the primary impetus behind the initiative ought not to be described as homophobic, even though the pre-referendum campaign can hardly escape this label (see below). Perhaps coincidentally, the public proclamation of the Alliance was shortly preceded by a pastoral letter written by the Conference of Bishops of Slovakia (full text in the Notes). In this massively distributed letter, the bishops fiercely criticized the ‘culture of death’, a pejorative concept lumping together pro-LGBTI civic activities, sexual education in public schools and the self-termed ‘gender ideology’ promoting ‘West-inspired’ non-traditional values. In this conveniently timed pastoral letter, the Catholic Church also denounced all those who actively aid the ‘promoters of the culture of death’, including public figures. This way, the Catholic Church might have warned all political forces that they have assumed a formal patronage over the initiative and all those publicly opposing the initiative would most certainly face reciprocal action.The letter has set the stage for a mass signature-collecting campaign which resulted in more than 400.000 signatures being collected in a fairly short time frame. If we consider that the population of Slovakia barely exceeds 5.5 million, this is indeed a non-negligible number.
With only one of the seven referendums held in post-independence Slovakia, the timing of the official registering of the signatures was of crucial importance. According to the Constitution, the President has an obligation to announce a civic referendum to be held within a time frame of four months after the signatures have been received by the Office. The intention of the Alliance was to align the referendum with the communal elections, held on November 15, 2014. These elections usually attract voters’ turnout of approximately 50 %. These plans, however, were halted by President Andrej Kiska who asked the Constitutional Court to verify whether the questions raised were in line with the spirit of the Constitution. This delayed the referendum by a few months and sparked fierce criticism of the President from the Conservative camp and the Catholic Church.
In the run-up to the decision by the Court, prominent constitutional lawyers have publicly expressed their view that since the proposed questions concerned marriage, they were indeed related to human rights and should be proclaimed unconstitutional. In a surprising move, however, the Court ruled that the questions do not challenge the spirit of the Constitution. Only one proposed question was scrapped; the one challenging the right of non-heterosexual couples to civic partnerships of any sort. It was henceforth decided by the President that the referendum would be held on February 7, 2015. In his press conference, President Kiska also revealed that he would vote positively on the first two questions related to marriage and adoptions, a position for which he was fiercely criticized by the liberal camp. This populist move might be seen as an effort to re-approach the Conservatives after it became apparent that the referendum would take place.
The decision has set off a fierce campaign, led primarily by the Alliance. It was reported that Alliance spent several hundred thousandeuros on billboards, banners, flyers, PR materials and a TV shot. The motto of Alliance’s campaign became “Three Yeses For Children” which has set off the confrontational tone of the campaign. The issue was framed as a protective measure against an assault of a sort, assault on traditional values of family, marriage and child-rearing. Homosexuals were thus, at least implicitly, portrayed as perpetrators who seek to challenge the status quo. This put the vulnerable LGBTI group into a precarious position: they were suddenly asked to defend their in most cases non-existent hidden agenda in a public debate they have not wanted or initiated.
The campaign received its fair share of media attention when most national TV channels, both public and private, decided not to broadcast the shot commissioned by the Alliance. Here, a child is presented being raised in a nationally-awarded foster family who is about to be adopted by a gay couple. Upon their arrival, the child looks up from his painting of a ‘traditional’ family and inquires: “…but where is mommy?” Inarguably, the shot was more damaging to the Alliance’s cause than they might have envisioned. Verging on the edge of populism, the shot has simplified the sophisticated ideological argument of the Alliance into a message which could have come across as too detached from reality on the ground. This is because adoptions by same-sex couples are not even remotely on the political agenda. In the absence of any legal protection for same-sex partnerships in the first place, adoptions are rarely on the top of the agenda even among LGBTI activists. It was thus felt that the campaign focused on adoptions in order to maximize the appeal of the referendum as a whole more on the populist rather than ideological side. This, ironically, could have scared away some of the natural proponents of the referendum.
The mostly liberal media outlets have gradually assumed the role of the opposing camp after Inakost decided not to accept the challenge they found unreasonable. A number of pre-referendum discussions were organized. Here, the spokespersons of the Alliance have stuck to the arguments which were part of their campaign rather than the more subtle arguments pertaining to their faith. They thus could not keep up with the invited experts and more often than not found themselves on the losing end.
Political parties have remained lukewarm in their reactions to the referendum. The ruling social democrats who should be ideologically close to the issue have sent out dubious, double-edged messages, most likely in an effort not to upset their liberal or Conservative voters. Similarly, the liberal SaS has failed to strongly oppose the referendum, at least in the initial stages of the campaign. This might be because they feared that having a strong stand might upset their economic-liberal voters. The Christian Democrats have endorsed the referendum, but the endorsement felt half-hearted. Even on the Conservative end of the spectrum, the battle over the moderately Conservative voter looms large between the KDH and the newly emerging Centre-Conservative SIET.
Gradually, a number of prominent figures have entered the campaign, mostly denouncing the referendum. The national media were used as a platform for making their voices heard. Some of the positions were also summarized on the official website of Inakost entitled: ‘We Won’t Turn Up!’. Setting up the website was the only official activity Inakost has undertaken as part of the pre-referendum campaign. Toward the end of the campaign, the former Prime Minister Iveta Radicova has entered the campaign and stated that she will use her right to abstain from the vote.
Finally, it should be mentioned that parallel to the official campaign, a much fiercer – and homophobic, unofficial campaign was launched. This campaign was also accompanied by a commercial shot which was far more homophobic in its tone. A young boy who is petted by two men standing behind him asks the audience whether they ‘find it normal’. There was also a massive, homophobic, flyer campaign designed to deceiving the recipients into believing that the flyers mostly containing homophobic arguments in support of the referendum come from a local neighbor. The Alliance has publicly renounced any links to the unofficial campaign presenting it as a civic initiative.
The referendum ended in an electoral fiasco. Even though the polls have suggested the referendum could attract as many as 35 % of the voters, only slightly more than 20 % have showed up on the polling day to cast their vote. In a somewhat surprising move, Inakost did organize election-night headquarters where journalists were invited. This might have been perceived by some that Inakost has, toward the end of the campaign, assumed the role of an opposing camp and thus provided some legitimacy to the cause. After the results have been announced, there were cheers in the Inakost camp. The Alliance camp, however, remained positive, too. One of the spokespersons of the Alliance, Anton Chromik, has stated that the campaign was a “wonderful adventure” and that nearly one million people have expressed their agreement with the questions raised, a force no political party should underestimate. Yet another spokesperson has stated that “people remained unaware of the referendum because the message of the referendum did not reach everyone.” This statement would raise the eyebrow of any independent observer who knows just how expensive and ostentatious the campaign was. The desperate attempt at the reframing of the referendum results demonstrates how surprising the low electoral turnout was for their representatives.
Out of the 20.41 % of voters who did turn up to the polls, more than 90 % answered positively to all questions raised. The first question related to the institution of marriage was supported by 94.5 % of those who turned up.The referendum was acknowledged a failure by most political parties. International media outlets have welcomed the result.
The Aftermath: A Discussion
There are many reasons which could potentially explain the unexpectedly low turnout. It would be overly optimistic to claim that most of those who did not turn up disagree with the questions raised. The reasons are likely to lie elsewhere.
First, there is a group of approximately 40 % of citizens who consistently fail to turn up to an election of any kind. The reasons might vary and so might the exact composition of this group. One thing remains clear, however; there is quite a sizeable group of individuals who seem to be self-alienated from public affairs.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Alliance has failed to adequately frame and communicate its message. The whole initiative started as a protest against legal broadening of the definition of marriage. This protest was rooted in religious beliefs, which vest enormous spiritual value into the institutions of marriage and family. The Alliance, however, framed its cause in terms of children protection and tried to create a state of emergency of a sort wherein LGBTI individuals were seen as those who pose a threat to a traditional society by wanting to redefine its very fabric. This framing might have failed on two accounts. First, some intellectual Christians, who do not support non-heterosexual marriages and adoptions, might have been scared off by the homophobic tone of the campaign. These individuals only wish to protect the institution of marriage in its current form but would also welcome if non-heterosexual couples were also provided with some form of institutionalized partnerships. Second, some voters might simply have found the framing too far-fetched.
Third, the involvement of the Catholic Church in the campaign might have discouraged some from taking part. One week before the referendum, a pastoral letter was read in all Catholic Churches urging people to vote positive on all three questions. Adding to the relatively high number of publicized pro-referendum sermons in several churches, some might have found the apparent meddling of the Church with state affairs inappropriate. The Conference of Bishops has publicly acknowledged this criticism after the results were announced and promised to analyze whether this was indeed the case (Krempasky 2015).
Finally, the role of the media and prominent figures in the campaign should not be understated. In the absence of a clear opposition force to the Alliance, the media have gradually assumed this role. This is not to say, however, that the media have dedicated disproportional space to arguing against the referendum. On the contrary, the media have taken the campaign seriously, organized a number of public discussions where representatives of the Alliance were always invited. The liberal tone of the news, however, did make the Alliance rather discontent with the media. Conservative voters seeking support for their position have retreated to various blogs and unprofessional media outlets where one-sided and subjective articles could be predominantly found. This has further facilitated the homophobic tone the campaign has gradually assumed. The campaign has thus shown that Slovakia is in need of a balanced Conservative daily run by professionals. The public remarks of various public figures, both popular and professional, might also have discouraged some moderate voters from turning up to the polls.
Conclusion: Is the Neo-Conservative Backlash Paying a Lip-Service to the LGBTI Cause?
Even though the reactions to the referendum results were lukewarm among political parties, the referendum seems to have been rather counterproductive to the Conservative cause. Despite a long and well-organized campaign, which could not by any means go unnoticed by most Slovak citizens, and despite the heavy involvement of the Slovak Catholic Church, the initiative failed to convince more than 30 % of all those who consider themselves Catholics to go to the polls. The low turnout cannot be interpreted differently than by stating that the legal broadening of the definition of marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples are not considered important enough by a majority of the Slovak population to turn up to the polls and express their view in a public plebiscite. This result decreases the blackmail power of the Catholic Church as a political kingmaker and might eventually speed up the road toward same-sex partnerships and adoptions.
Inakost reacted to the referendum results by promising to intensify their activities and launch a pro-same-sex-partnership platform. It is the governing Social Democrats who will ultimately decide whether same-sex partnerships will find their way on the legislative agenda or not. Prime Minister Robert Fico has announced that the referendum results are of no wider consequence for his party and restated his earlier position that LGBTI agenda is not a priority for his government. Similar views were expressed by the Speaker of the Parliament and Foreign Affairs Minister, who both argued that Slovak society is not ready to accept same-sex partnerships (Kern 2015). This should not come as a surprise. In a highly volatile multi-party environment 20 % of voters represent a considerable force. Prime Minister, moreover, has a reason to believe that a considerable portion of his voter base has turned up to the election with his appeal being primarily based in poor and rural communities.
As already stated, the referendum has no clear winners. The results do demonstrate, however, that the mobilizing potential of Conservative forces in Eastern Europe seems to be in decline. Early analyses show that it is predominantly rural citizens in the North and North-East of Slovakia who went to the polls in greater numbers. The turnout in cities remained low with the capital of Bratislava seeing a turnout well below the national average. Cities thus seem to provide a counterbalance to Conservative forces in Slovakia. This climate might prove to be more sympathetic to minority rights in the near future and balance off the Conservative forces.
The clear losers of the whole initiative are young homosexuals who grow up in an environment characterized by homophobia. The campaign in which homophobic remarks loomed large did not make it easier for young homosexuals to come out and accept their sexuality. As the former Prime Minister and sociologist Iveta Radicova remarked, “the referendum has unearthed incredible dirt residing within the very fabric of our society”. Let us only hope that this dirt washes away in the aftermath of the referendum and human-rights-related issues will be settled at a negotiating table in the future rather than in a national plebiscite.
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