Romania’s government did everything in its power to make sure its referendum to enshrine a ban on same-sex marriage into the constitution would pass unchallenged. It spent between $40 million and $50 million on preparations, extended the voting period from one to two days and even lowered the required participation threshold from 50 to 30 percent, just to be sure.

But by Saturday evening, after the first of the two voting days, only about 5 percent had cast their ballots.

After the Orthodox Church issued a final rallying cry Sunday, participation increased to at least 20 percent but still failed to meet the minimum threshold — though the vast majority of people who did bother to vote approved the measure to define marriage as heterosexual.

“Romanians rejected being divided and hating each other,” Vlad Viski, a representative for Romanian LGBT rights group MozaiQ, told Reuters. Viski said voters had grown weary of the involvement of the Orthodox Church that had massively campaigned in favor of the constitutional ban together with the ruling Social Democrats.

“We showed that we, as citizens, want a Romania based upon democratic values, a country where respect, equality and common sense guides society,” Romanian LGBT rights group Accept said in a statement.


A man leaves a voting booth at a polling station in Bucharest, Romania, on Oct. 7 in a referendum to change the constitutional definition of "family". (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP)

Even though the referendum originated in a 2016 petition signed by about 3 million Romanians, the Social Democrats associated themselves with the vote during the past few months, hoping the campaign they assumed to be an almost guaranteed success would boost their electoral chances overall. While they failed to mobilize same-sex marriage opponents over the weekend, their campaign once again stirred long-running anti-LGBT tensions in a country that only decriminalized homosexuality in 2001 and where same sex marriage or civil unions have been illegal since 2009.

The referendum itself did not give voters a choice to vote in favor of allowing same-sex marriage, but only whether the constitutional definition of a “family” should continue to be gender-neutral. Either way, the result would not have had an immediate legal impact, but may have prevented possible future court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage or same-sex civil union.

But as a growing number of government critics urged Romanians to boycott the vote, the same-sex marriage referendum also became a de facto confidence vote over the Social Democratic government. The ruling party has repeatedly shocked domestic and international observers with corruption scandals and attempts to disrupt the rule of law that triggered large protests across the country. Last year, the Social Democrats and their political allies in parliament voted to decriminalize official misconduct causing damage worth less than about $50,000 — basically turning a blind eye to all forms of petty corruption.

Party leader Liviu Dragnea was himself convicted of electoral fraud in 2015 and of abuse-of-office earlier this summer. Appeals proceedings against the latest sentence are due to begin this week, which has triggered questions over the timing of a referendum some consider to be a distraction from the government’s corruption accusations.

Leading party officials offered a very different take on the failed referendum, with the Social Democrats’ secretary general, Codrin Stefanescu, calling it “a failure of Romanians and of Romania in general.”

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