On October 6 and 7 of this year, the Romanian government issued a call to its citizens to vote on a referendum unthinkable in the contemporary context of Europe. The popular initiative, started by the group Coalition of the Family, aimed at modifying the language in the Romanian constitution with regard to its definition of the family. Up until then, the constitution held the definition of “family” as the union between two individuals, written in gender-neutral terms. In stark contrast to the contemporary moral intuition, the proposal sought to change such definition to the union of a man and a woman. The idea had been rallied by the Coalition of the Family group since 2015, which had been campaigning aggressively, hinging on their support by the Romanian Orthodox Church, and more recently, by the Social Democratic Party, which is currently in power. More interestingly, the referendum didn’t lack international support: it was backed significantly by the Liberty Counsel, an American advocacy organization, which brought the infamous Kim Davis on tour in Romania, just last year.
From the get-go, a question loomed large in terms of the referendum. Why campaign aggressively for a change in constitutional language when same-sex marriage is not presently legal? The efforts towards the campaign are said to have been around 40 million Euros, a non-indifferent sum for a country which is, as of now, already 3.6 billion Euros in deficit for the year. To a certain extent, the purpose of the referendum seems pursuant to a historical aversion towards LGBTQ rights. Up until 1995, homosexuality was considered a crime, punishable from 1-5 years in prison. Given Romania’s ambition, this was amended to only public acts in 1996, and ultimately abolished in 2000. In terms of civil unions, between 2008 and 2016 only five initiatives have entered parliament. With the exception of one currently under discussion, all the others were either denied or retracted. Romania’s attitudes towards the subject could be best seen in the case of Relu Adrian Coman, a Romanian national who was denied right of stay for his husband, whom he married in Belgium. The case went all the way up to the Romanian constitutional court, which ultimately decided to defer their decision to the Court of Justice of the European Union. The CJEU ruled in favor of the defendant. Overall, given the general sentiment, it comes to little surprise that the Coalition for the Family managed to gather about 3 million signatures for its initiative against same-sex marriage.
It seems, then, that the referendum was planned in a way that would be easily acceptable to a vast number of the electorate-- an easy win. However, it’s de facto significance appears to be nil, as it wouldn’t change any rights, as of now. Even if one understands the referendum as an undertaking that would bring future obstacles for a possible shift towards LGBTQ recognition, one must ask who was to gain from it in the immediate. The most plausible answer is the Social Democratic Party. The group is seeking recognition, specially due to diminishing rates of support, and the recent scandal in which hundreds of thousands of citizens have protested the current corruption of government. Moreover, the Social Democratic Party president has been charged with corruption multiple times, as well as creating fake jobs for party members. In such a context, a diversion as facile as reinforcing what appears to be the consensus with regard to same-sex marriage does not seem out of line. Rather, it appears to be worthwhile as building a new image of support for the party. The government’s move, then, to extend the referendum’s duration to two days, rather than one, seems to only support such a view.
On the evening of Oct. 7, the results appeared to be clear. The referendum failed on a basis of quorum, with only 20.4% of the population having participated, far from the 30% minimum. This can be understood for a number of reasons: first and foremost, there was strong force among the younger electorate to boycott the election altogether. Groups such as MozaiQ, a LGBTQ advocacy organization, realized that participating in the referendum would be risky, given the 3 million people who signed the petition to put it up in the first place. Indeed, of the 20.4%, the vast majority was in favor, counting erringly close to the number of those who signed earlier. The better solution for those in favor was to stay home. In addition, even though the country may be said to be conservative, it is another question altogether to consider it politically active. Many of those who were against same-sex marriage were not necessarily passionate enough to go the urns to vote, even if they were given the two- day extension.
However, it seems difficult to call this “a victory for democracy,” as Vlad Viski, president of MozaiQ, declared. Rather, the present case calls for profound reflection. One should not celebrate non-functioning, instead of malfunctioning, of a state instrument, even in the case of a just result. Democracy’s core tenet is the value of equal worth of opinion, but this should arise in terms of equal participation, not equal absence. Romania’s scandals regarding corruption still continue, as a recent call by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed, and it is unsettling to see the main achievement of a country be an absence of participation in crooked leadership, rather than an attempt to take it over. The Romanian case appears to, as of now, remain nebulous. Yet one is to hope that this referendum will stay put in the minds of the generation that is to come. Perhaps it will take a just result coming from an unjust system to make people strive for a just system overall.