How Young People in Romania Won a Referendum By Not Voting
On Saturday the 6th and Sunday the 7th of October, Romanians voted in a referendum on an amendment to the constitution that would redefine the family as a union between “a man and a woman”, as opposed to the gay-friendlier term “spouses”, as it currently reads. The referendum was initiated by an alliance of organisations called The Coalition for the Family, whose mission was to “protect the traditional Romanian family”. The initiative was also strongly backed by the Romanian Orthodox Church, most Romanian religious groups, as well as the main political parties.
In preparation for the referendum, The Coalition for the Family ran an aggressive campaign. Towns and villages were plastered with posters and banners carrying hateful messages against the LGBT community, such as “If you don’t vote, two men will be able to adopt your child!” Campaign materials were distributed in churches, schools, and even in the packaging of loaves of bread in shops. The leader of the ruling party, Liviu Dragnea, stated on TV that the referendum was necessary, because “people are frightened by countries where marriages between humans and animals have been legalised.” The government decided to hold the referendum over two days instead of one.
At the same time, many Romanians felt the initiative for the referendum was anti-democratic and anti-European, given its aim to restrict the rights of a minority. The LGBTQ movement in Romania campaigned among their supporters to boycott the referendum, so the voter threshold of 30 percent wouldn't be met and the outcome of the referendum wouldn't be validated. The No campaign's strategy proved successful – on Sunday around noon, it became clear that the threshold wouldn't be met and the referendum was a flop. In the end, just 3.7 million people had voted, which accounted for 21.1 percent of all Romanians with the right to vote. That doesn't mean gay marriage is suddenly legal in the country – it just means that it isn't outright banned in the constitution.
Before the referendum, the boycott was considered a risky and controversial among opponents of the referendum. And it's obvious why – not showing up could have easily meant being powerless while watching the zealots win. Is it better to vote and legitimise a referendum you feel should not have existed at all, or better to ignore the vote and having no say in the outcome? To learn more, I spoke to people opposing the amendment, to hear why they boycotted the referendum or, alternatively, decided to go to the polls and vote against it.
A few days ahead of the referendum, I asked Vlad Viski, president of LGBT-rights advocacy NGO MozaiQ, the catalyst behind the boycott campaign, why they opted for this risky strategy. “We wanted to spread the idea that we shouldn't subject human rights to the polls, and that the initiative taken by the Coalition for the Family is illegitimate. We have to reject hate-mongering messages and show our commitment to democratic and European values. Minorities should be protected, women's reproductive rights shouldn't be questioned and fundamental liberties for citizens should be guaranteed.”
Alex Palas, a 28-year-old activist working for a Romanian NGO, boycotted the referendum, too. “The referendum restricted the potential rights of the LGBT community, and the campaign that preceded it was manipulative, and incited fear against LGBT people. There wasn't an opportunity of a blank vote, so by going, you'd automatically contribute to the threshold. I felt that taking part in the referendum would be legitimising the whole endeavour," he explained.
Human rights educator Andrei Stupu, 20, shared those views. “For me it was because I wanted to express the fact that I didn't approve of the referendum. It didn't represent me and I didn't want the threshold to be met. I didn't even want to seem aware of the fact that the referendum existed. I’ve also read the decision of Romania’s Constitutional Court, which says that a refusal to participate is a valid way to express one’s opinion in this case.”
Rareș Duican, 30, a Bucharest-based corporate employee, boycotted as well. "It made no sense, we'd have been the first EU member state to outright state that we hate minorities. And it was the first step to other similar polls. I can relate to people who voted no, but I think the point was that the referendum shouldn't have met the threshold that would have validated it," he told me. That said, he thought Romanians still should have paid attention to voter turnout over the weekend. "If on Sunday we had realised the quota was met, we should have headed to the polls collectively to vote. But not before."
29-year old HR manager Ana Maria decided to go to the polls and vote, because she didn't think not showing up would work. "I voted no, given the political climate – the way they outright lie on TV, how we're being set up to be defrauded. [Liviu Dragnea, head of the ruling party] has been convicted for electoral fraud before, and they changed the rules on this referendum during the home stretch – deciding not to use electronic voting and extending the referendum to two days. I voted because I didn't trust it at all."
41-year-old historian Mădălin Hodor voted too, as he believed battles like this should be fought in the voting booths, not at home. He worried that the ruling party and the Coalition for the Family were well able to mobilise the masses, and considered the threshold of 30 percent to be very low already. And more importantly, he said, “a boycott would mean allowing them to not only speak their mind, but to impose their will onto those who boycotted. Staying away would have meant we were turning down a fight with them. It’s a matter of personal choice and ethical hygiene," he continued. "If I want to oppose overstepping people’s rights, I think I need to make that public, where it matters.”
While the boycott was a considerable risk and a divisive strategy under voters opposing the referendum, it worked out in Romania, this time. It's clear though, that past performance is no guarantee of future results.