Romania’s Misbegotten Referendum on Marriage and Family

For many social conservatives in America, a national referendum on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between only one man and one woman would be a dream come true.  But when Romania, a country over 95 percent self-proclaimed Christian, conducted just such a vote, enough people chose to sleep instead that the vote ended up in a failure of epic proportions.

During Saturday, October 6 and Sunday, October 07, 2018, Romania conducted its national referendum on the  traditional family. The initiative had been sponsored by the conservative Coalition for Family.  It was also supported by the Romanian Orthodox Church (predominant in the country) and most political parties: both the left-wing coalition in power (consisting of the traditional left PSD social democrats and the center-left ALDE liberal-democrats) and most of the center-right opposition parties (the moderate-right PNL national-liberals and the right-wing PMP populists). The eclectic populists of USR (Save Romania Union), the second largest opposition party, after the PNL, opposed the referendum and called the population for boycott.

The main factors that led up to of this initiative were the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that allowed gay marriage, followed by a 2018 EU immigration ruling backing an American-Romanian gay couple who were married in Belgium.  Similar referenda were held in Europe, the Caribbean, and Australia.

East European nations seem to be more inclined to support this type of referendum; Slovenia voted in March 2012, with a 30.1 percent turnout and 54.55 percent voting “no” for same-sex couples; Croatia, in December 2013, with a 37.9 percent turnout and 65.87 voting “yes” for traditional families; and Slovakia, in February 2015, with a 21.4 percent turnout and 96.5 percent voting against same-sex marriage.

Ireland voted in May 2015, with a 61 per cent turnout and 62 per cent voting “yes” for marriages without distinction as to their sex.

In the Caribbean, Bermuda voted in June 2016, with a 46.89 percent turnout and 49 per cent voting “no” for same-sex couples.

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the president rejected in August 2016 a petition for a same-sex marriage referendum that failed to collect the required 200,000 signatures.

Australia voted in a September-November 2017 marriage law postal survey, with a 79.5 percent turnout and 61.6 per cent voting “yes” to same-sex marriages.

In Romania, the amendment aimed to alter the wording of the constitution to define marriage explicitly as between a man and woman rather than simply “spouses” as it had stated since 1991.

In order to ensure maximum turnout, the government allowed voters to cast their ballots during a two-day plebiscite (as opposed to the traditional one-day voting on Sunday) and lowered by special law the required turnout percentage for the result to be valid from 50 per cent to 30 per cent. The polls were indicating a landslide victory for the traditional family supporters, with as many as 90 per cent of people in favor.

But in the end, only a little over 21 per cent of voters cared to show up. About 91.5 per cent voted for the amendment, 6.5 per cent voted against, while some 2 percent of the votes were invalid or blank. Romanian expats seemed to be more active, lining up for voting in countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany, while in Romania many polling stations remained empty throughout the two referendum days. 

The results were followed by mixed reactions. The Coalition for Family association blamed the government for insufficient involvement. The opponents blamed the church for interfering in politics when priests urged their parishioners to vote for the amendment. Others thought the amendment targeted one-parent families and gay couples. Many from both camps claimed that the referendum was useless, since the Romanian Civil Code already defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.”

Most of their assertions are incorrect. The goal of the referendum was to clarify on the constitutional level what the term “marriage” means for Romanians. Statutes, like the Civil Code, can be modified anytime. Ultimately, the role of interpreting the Constitution belongs to the nine Constitutional Court justices, appointed by politicians not for life, but for a limited, nine-year, mandate.  As a result, the definition of family and marriage in a conservative society like Romania remains open to interpretation by only nine people.

The causes that explain this failure are linked to the period chosen for the referendum, lacking any electoral significance. The next elections for Romanians are to be held in a distant future: May 2019 for the EU elections, November 2019 for the presidential elections, June 2020 for the local elections and November-December 2020 for the parliamentary elections.

However, the referendum was held just a few days before the leftist social democrat leader Liviu Dragnea was expected to appear in court to appeal a sentence of three-and-a-half years over a fake jobs scandal. Since Dragnea was already sentenced for a two-year suspended prison sentence for vote-rigging in a referendum in 2016, a lost appeal for him would mean serving both sentences in prison. In reality, Dragnea appropriated the referendum for his own political gain.

Given the circumstances, many of his party colleagues decided to distance themselves from him, joined by a large part of the population, thus compromising completely the turnout, reason for which the referendum is to be voided.

For a country assuming the presidency of the Council of the EU between January and June 2019, Romania started off on the wrong foot. Or as Romanians would put it, “stepped with the left foot.” It was the Left alright.

TIBERIU DIANU has published several books and a host of articles in law, politics, and post-communist societies. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC and can be followed on MEDIUM. 

For many social conservatives in America, a national referendum on a constitutional amendment to define marriage as between only one man and one woman would be a dream come true.  But when Romania, a country over 95 percent self-proclaimed Christian, conducted just such a vote, enough people chose to sleep instead that the vote ended up in a failure of epic proportions.

During Saturday, October 6 and Sunday, October 07, 2018, Romania conducted its national referendum on the  traditional family. The initiative had been sponsored by the conservative Coalition for Family.  It was also supported by the Romanian Orthodox Church (predominant in the country) and most political parties: both the left-wing coalition in power (consisting of the traditional left PSD social democrats and the center-left ALDE liberal-democrats) and most of the center-right opposition parties (the moderate-right PNL national-liberals and the right-wing PMP populists). The eclectic populists of USR (Save Romania Union), the second largest opposition party, after the PNL, opposed the referendum and called the population for boycott.

The main factors that led up to of this initiative were the 2015 US Supreme Court decision that allowed gay marriage, followed by a 2018 EU immigration ruling backing an American-Romanian gay couple who were married in Belgium.  Similar referenda were held in Europe, the Caribbean, and Australia.

East European nations seem to be more inclined to support this type of referendum; Slovenia voted in March 2012, with a 30.1 percent turnout and 54.55 percent voting “no” for same-sex couples; Croatia, in December 2013, with a 37.9 percent turnout and 65.87 voting “yes” for traditional families; and Slovakia, in February 2015, with a 21.4 percent turnout and 96.5 percent voting against same-sex marriage.

Ireland voted in May 2015, with a 61 per cent turnout and 62 per cent voting “yes” for marriages without distinction as to their sex.

In the Caribbean, Bermuda voted in June 2016, with a 46.89 percent turnout and 49 per cent voting “no” for same-sex couples.

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the president rejected in August 2016 a petition for a same-sex marriage referendum that failed to collect the required 200,000 signatures.

Australia voted in a September-November 2017 marriage law postal survey, with a 79.5 percent turnout and 61.6 per cent voting “yes” to same-sex marriages.

In Romania, the amendment aimed to alter the wording of the constitution to define marriage explicitly as between a man and woman rather than simply “spouses” as it had stated since 1991.

In order to ensure maximum turnout, the government allowed voters to cast their ballots during a two-day plebiscite (as opposed to the traditional one-day voting on Sunday) and lowered by special law the required turnout percentage for the result to be valid from 50 per cent to 30 per cent. The polls were indicating a landslide victory for the traditional family supporters, with as many as 90 per cent of people in favor.

But in the end, only a little over 21 per cent of voters cared to show up. About 91.5 per cent voted for the amendment, 6.5 per cent voted against, while some 2 percent of the votes were invalid or blank. Romanian expats seemed to be more active, lining up for voting in countries like the United Kingdom, Ireland and Germany, while in Romania many polling stations remained empty throughout the two referendum days. 

The results were followed by mixed reactions. The Coalition for Family association blamed the government for insufficient involvement. The opponents blamed the church for interfering in politics when priests urged their parishioners to vote for the amendment. Others thought the amendment targeted one-parent families and gay couples. Many from both camps claimed that the referendum was useless, since the Romanian Civil Code already defines marriage as a “union between a man and a woman.”

Most of their assertions are incorrect. The goal of the referendum was to clarify on the constitutional level what the term “marriage” means for Romanians. Statutes, like the Civil Code, can be modified anytime. Ultimately, the role of interpreting the Constitution belongs to the nine Constitutional Court justices, appointed by politicians not for life, but for a limited, nine-year, mandate.  As a result, the definition of family and marriage in a conservative society like Romania remains open to interpretation by only nine people.

The causes that explain this failure are linked to the period chosen for the referendum, lacking any electoral significance. The next elections for Romanians are to be held in a distant future: May 2019 for the EU elections, November 2019 for the presidential elections, June 2020 for the local elections and November-December 2020 for the parliamentary elections.

However, the referendum was held just a few days before the leftist social democrat leader Liviu Dragnea was expected to appear in court to appeal a sentence of three-and-a-half years over a fake jobs scandal. Since Dragnea was already sentenced for a two-year suspended prison sentence for vote-rigging in a referendum in 2016, a lost appeal for him would mean serving both sentences in prison. In reality, Dragnea appropriated the referendum for his own political gain.

Given the circumstances, many of his party colleagues decided to distance themselves from him, joined by a large part of the population, thus compromising completely the turnout, reason for which the referendum is to be voided.

For a country assuming the presidency of the Council of the EU between January and June 2019, Romania started off on the wrong foot. Or as Romanians would put it, “stepped with the left foot.” It was the Left alright.

TIBERIU DIANU has published several books and a host of articles in law, politics, and post-communist societies. He currently lives and works in Washington, DC and can be followed on MEDIUM.