What does Croatia’s same-sex marriage referendum mean?

The results of a referendum on the definition of marriage in Croatia were disappointing for those who hoped EU accession indicated a shift towards tolerance in the country. But a conservative-created wedge issue might be the spark for progressive Croatians to push for more long-term change.

Valerie Hopkins
18 December 2013

Last Sunday, one quarter of the Croatian electorate voted to amend the country’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  Gay marriage had never been legal. Nor had the country’s top politicians, who publicly support the LGBT minority, spearhead any credible efforts to make it so. 

So why the referendum?  Some see it as a test to see how much influence the church and the political conservatives hold in Croatia.  Indeed it shows the strength of the first non-nationalistic conservative movement in the EU’s newest member, though with 86 percent of the population nominally Catholic, it also points to the limits of the church’s power.

A total of 66 percent of voters were in favor, with only two counties voting against the definition.   Yet the 37 percent turnout was the lowest for a nation-wide election in the country’s 20 years as a democracy. The low turn-out may be as significant as the result of the referendum itself.

Center-left Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic decried the result and announced that a new law on civil partnerships giving “all couples, regardless of sex orientation, the same rights” would be passed expeditiously.  President Ivo Josipovic also criticized the referendum, albeit with more tepid remarks.

Milanovic also said that new laws on referenda would be passed lowering the bar for getting an initiative on the ballot, but ensuring that no amendments be added to the Constitution unless more than 40 percent of the eligible population vote.

“This was the last referendum in which a majority limits the rights of a minority,” he said. The irony is that the government had eased the rules on referenda in advance of the 2012 vote to enter the European Union.

The proposed revisions to the referendum law would also ban issues of minority rights from being included in ballot initiatives.  Citizens of the northeastern area of Vukovar, one of the first major flashpoints in the 1990s wars for Yugoslav succession, have said they collected enough signatures to hold a referendum to ban signs in the Cyrillic alphabet. A similar law was passed in 1941 when the Croatian fascist Ustasha government. 

The vote was held as a Croatian football player Josip Simunic came under fire for chanting a slogan from the WWII-era Croatian Ustasha regime, which helped the Nazis kill tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, and political prisoners in concentration camps.  The most alarming part of the controversy is that when Simunic shouted “For the Homeland!” 30,000 fans responded “Ready,” the second half of the chant. 

This is the third referendum Croatians have voted in their twenty years of democracy.  The first, a vote to leave Yugoslavia, paved the way to bloodshed.  The second, to join the European Union, was a vote for a Western future.  And this third vote finds that Croatia’s is still somewhere between Western Europe and its Balkan neighbors. 

The referendum is not a welcome sign, and raises concerns about Croatia’s voice both at home and within the EU.  But the LGBT community receive much more governmental support than other former Yugoslav republics of Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia.  High level politicians march in the annual pride parades in Croatia, where President Josipovic said on Sunday that “a nation is judged by its attitude toward minorities.”  To place this in the context of the region it is worth bearing in mind that Macedonia does not even have gender discrimination included in the 2011 anti-discrimination law.

And it is worth bearing in mind that in this case Croatia is unfortunately in keeping with several of the older members of the EU.  The referendum came several weeks after the European Court of Justice decided to grant asylum to LGBT persons facing discrimination outside of the EU despite the fact that a number of its members have restrictive policies against same-sex couples, not to mention violent, prejudiced populaces.

Five other EU members explicitly ban same-sex marriage: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary and Bulgaria.  Ten mostly Northern and Western European countries allow it, and 14 recognize same-sex unions in one form or another.  Serbia received much criticism from EU members for banning a planned pride march in September: EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule called the decision to ban the parade "a missed opportunity to show respect for fundamental human rights."

But Brussels has been silent about the results of Croatia’s referendum. Despite calls from individual members of the European Parliament to encourage Croatians to vote against the referendum, the EU itself said that as long as family laws don’t violate the European and international human rights conventions, they are not in the EU’s domain.

In the United States, marriage equality had not been a priority for LGBT activists until well-organized conservative groups began pushing for laws to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.  LGBT groups, which had been more focused on anti-discrimination legislation and decriminalizing homosexual sex, mobilized to fight back in the face of the conservative-created wedge issue.  There is still a long way to go, but now 16 states have legalized gay marriage. 

Disturbing episodes of violence and prejudice against minorities are becoming all too common across Europe, but perhaps in the case of Croatia, the wedge issues being pushed by conservatives can – with an organized social movement – be harnessed to bring about long-term progress.

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