There were no elections to speak of at the weekend, but Croatia held a referendum yesterday to insert a ban on same-sex marriage into its constitution. As expected, it was carried decisively, but on a low turnout.
The referendum was not a government project; it resulted from a petition from a Catholic group, “In the Name of the Family”, which collected more than 700,000 signatures. Croatia, which joined the European Union earlier this year, remains a strongly Catholic country. Traditionally, Catholicism has been the major factor used to distinguish ethnic Croats from neighboring Serbs, making it more than usually difficult to disentangle religious belief and ethnic identification.
With all but eight polling places reporting, official figures show the “yes” vote just short of two-thirds, or 66.2%. Coincidentally, that’s almost exactly the same percentage as voted yes in the last Croatian referendum, held last year to approve EU membership. Turnout, however, was only 37.9%, as compared to 43.5% last year and 56.5% in Croatia’s most recent election.
Unlike the EU referendum, yesterday’s vote divided the country’s political class. The centre-left government, elected just on two years ago, was opposed, but it had the support of the conservative opposition.
It doesn’t follow, however, that the result is a bad sign for the government. It’s at least as likely that letting the conservatives blow off some steam will work to its advantage, taking a possibly troublesome issue off the table. Certainly the low turnout suggests that the country is not exactly up in arms about it.
Same-sex marriage hasn’t had a good run in “new Europe”. Last year, a referendum in neighboring Slovenia disallowed a new family code that would have permitted same-sex marriage in all but name. Hungary, Poland and Serbia also have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, although Hungary allows civil partnerships.
Nonetheless, even in conservative countries there seems little appetite for a general winding-back of gay rights. For once, Europe is looking not unlike the United States, where a patchwork of different approaches in different jurisdictions still manages to convey an overall impression of progress.
The Catholic church’s continued message of organised intolerance seems increasingly at odds with the approach of Pope Francis, who seems keen to orient the church much more around social justice issues and an inclusive, non-judgemental approach. But institutional inertia is a powerful thing, especially in a 2000-year-old institution, so don’t expect the church to come on board with the twenty-first century just yet.