A mere 20.41 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in Romania’s internationally-watched referendum, falling short of the 30 percent needed to legally change the constitution. Mihai Gheorghiu, president of the pro-referendum, N.G.O. Coalition for Family, declared prior to the vote that they were trying “… to protect, at a constitutional level, the definition of marriage – between one woman and one man.” As such, the referendum sought to establish a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Romania. The amendment would have changed the definition of family to make marriage a union between a man and a woman instead of between “two spouses,” as it currently reads. Both the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) and the Romanian Orthodox Church strongly supported the constitutional revision.
The Coalition for Family had managed to gather three million signatures in early 2016, in order to initiate the referendum. Surprisingly, a poll on Friday indicated that support for the ban was as high as 90 percent. The Guardian reported local opinions over the weekend, “If we allow gay people to marry, tomorrow they will be asking to adopt children and that would be unacceptable.” Yet, after two days of voting, it appears only a fifth of voters even bothered to turn out. Dozens of oppositional groups had urged all eligible voters to boycott the referendum. As well, various LGBTQ rights organizations delivered speeches and protests in Bucharest the weeks leading up to the vote.
Sociologist Gelu Duminica mused “The aggressiveness of the ‘Yes’ campaign, the attempt to instil hatred against a minority, has made Romanians reticent to vote.” Participation was actively framed as “patriotic, national and profoundly democratic”. Organizations that advocate for traditional family values pushed propaganda ahead of the vote, using billboards, media ads calling to “defend Romania’s children,” and school visits by pro-referendum church officials. Critics say the Social Democrats sought to use the referendum as a deflection tactic amidst a frenzy of corruption scandals and attacks on rule of law implicating party officials. In fact, PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, is scheduled to appear in court just this coming week to appeal against a fake jobs scandal.
In practice, however, Romania does not recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions, and it continues to be illegal. A ‘yes’ outcome for the referendum would have, in effect, made it more difficult to reverse a same-sex marriage ban in the future, as well as stripping away the legal protections of different types of families. Days before the vote, members of the European Parliament voiced their disapproval by stating that the vote would not only affect LGBTQ families, but also “single-parent families, non-married partners with children,” and “grandparents raising their grandchildren”. Opposition leader of the Save Romania Union, Dan Barna, called for the government’s immediate resignation for “wasting [millions of euros] of public money on a fantasy”.
The referendum ultimately raises age-old questions on who has the right to define and enshrine within a constitution what a family should or should not look like — or rather, more importantly, whether this is a moral call that any single individual, group, or government even has the right to make. Limiting the legal and social formation of a child’s family is akin to limiting his or her long-term well being. Furthermore, limiting the definition of family inevitably increases discrimination and abuse of civil rights. Romania currently ranks 25th out of 28 European Union members on issues of equality, nondiscrimination, and legal recognition for LGBTQ people, according to a Brussels-based rights advocacy group. The failed referendum can therefore be seen as a win for human rights in Romania.
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