This is a guest post by Dario Cepo, a senior research assistant at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Law, and a Fulbright visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.
In a Sunday referendum, voters in Croatia took a further step in restricting marriage rights. Family law already prescribed marriage as a union between a woman and a man, so same-sex marriage wasn’t even legal (nor did the government intend to make it legal). But the referendum enshrined this heterosexual definition of marriage in the Croatian constitution. Almost all analysts agree that Croatia has effectively banned gays and lesbians from marrying their partners.
How did this happen? The referendum was the product of a right-wing alliance of astroturf organizations (lead by the citizens’ initiative named In the Name of the Family) and fringe political parties. It was also supported by a major political party, the Croatian Democratic Union, which, although currently in the opposition, has dominated Croatian politics since independence. But the biggest, although covert, assist came from the powerful Catholic Church, who provided financial and infrastructural help and encouraged priests to support the referendum from the pulpit.
Tensions were high throughout October and November, when many politicians, celebrities, and athletes came out in support of or in opposition to the referendum. Several civil- and LGBT-rights organizations argued in court that the referendum should not be allowed to go forward, but the court upheld the referendum’s place on the ballot. Although several members of the European Parliament called on Croats to vote against the referendum, European Union officials stated that family issues are the member states’ domain, not the European Union’s — as long as Croatia does not violate the European Convention on Human Rights and similar international agreements.
In the end, only 37 percent of voters turned out, and the result confirmed many analysts’ predictions: support for the referendum enshrining heterosexual marriage in the constitution won 66 percent of the vote. Only two out of 21 Croatian counties voted against the referendum, as did only 48 of more than 500 municipalities:
This was the lowest turnout for a major election in over 20 years of Croatian democracy, suggesting that, even though 86 percent of Croatians say they belong to the Catholic Church, relatively few heeded the church’s exhortations on this issue. This may signal the limits of the church’s influence.
With this vote Croatia aligned itself with several Eastern European countries that have placed same-sex marriages bans in their constitution. But the government may still take steps that help same-sex couples. A bill to create registered partnerships for same-sex couples — akin to civil unions — may yet come up for a parliamentary vote. If it passes, which could happen as soon as January 2014, it would enshrine almost all the rights for same-sex couples that married couples already enjoy, except the right to adopt children (though if one partner already had children, the other one would still have the right to become their guardian). There are also plans to introduce new curricula for elementary and high schools that emphasize tolerance, including for the LGBT population.
Most importantly, the parliament is likely to change the constitutional rules for future referenda. The latest proposal would lower the number of signatures that needed to place the referendum on the ballot, but make the results legally binding only if more than 40 percent of voters actually vote. It would also disallow certain issues, including issues related to minority rights such as same-sex marriage, from being addressed in referenda. This may pose the best hope for same-sex marriage advocates, as Croatian politicians are more liberal on this issue that Croats themselves.