Slovak vote to restrict gay rights fails

By bne IntelliNews February 9, 2015

Benjamin Cunningham in Bratislava -

 

Just 21% of eligible Slovak voters took part in a February 7 referendum that sought to limit the rights of same sex couples, far below the 50% needed to make the result legally binding. However, with around a million approving the motion, the vote offers more evidence of the shifting political winds in Slovakia.

It was a triumph of apathy rather than a sign of liberal leanings on the part of the wider public that the referendum failed. Those that did turn out overwhelmingly supported all three questions on the ballot, which was promoted by the Alliance for Family (AZR).

The first, seeking to define marriage as between one man and one woman, received 94.5% support, while a second which sought to ban adoption by same sex couples was given the nod by 92.4%. Meanwhile, 90.3% voted for legislation that would allow parents to opt children out of sexual education classes in school.

Outright fatigue was also likely a factor in the low turnout. This was the fifth time Slovak voters have taken to the polls in the past 12 months. Just 13% made it to vote during European Parliamentary elections last May, a new EU low.

"I don't care, it's none of my business," said Alena Duharova, a 55-year old entrepreneur from the western Slovak city of Dubnica nad Vahom, who did not vote. "All this was created because of the church."

Slovakia's constitution already bans gay marriage. Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman last year. Still, leaders from the AZR argued that more was needed to protect children. They were able to collect 400,000 signatures on a petition to pave the way for the vote, well over the 350,000 required for a publicly-driven ballot initiative and a sign of grassroots political organising clout.
 
Campaigning in recent weeks had taken an interesting turn, with major media - public and private - declining to air AZR advertisements. Referendum organisers complained of censorship and accused broadcasters of bowing to political pressure - although it is unclear from where pressure would come. Church leaders, including the Bishops Conference of Slovakia, were outspoken in backing the referendum.

One million strong

For his part, Prime Minister Robert Fico kept his cards close to his chest. Whilst he told media he planned to vote, he didn't specify which way, and did little to urge supporters to cast ballots. Leaders from the LGBTI community simply asked supporters to stay at home.

Speculation now focuses on whether the leaders of the conservative AZR will seek to parlay their referendum efforts into a wider ranging political project. Even given the low turnout, around one million offered support. That's comparable to the number of votes carried by the ruling Smer in the 2012 general election, which saw them secure an outright majority in parliament.

That may be part of the reason AZR leaders felt able to claim a victory on February 8. "The process has been important; people are more oriented toward family values than before," Anton Chromik, one of those at the forefront of the movement, told bne IntelliNews. "We will try again if needed."

While Fico and Smer continue to dominate public opinion polls, the country's centre-right remains divided and disorganized. With a year or so to go before a general election, the AZR may offer just another sign of shifting political winds.

A year ago, political novice Andrej Kiska defeated Fico in a runoff for the presidency. Since taking office in June, Kiska has served as a moderate - if largely rhetorical - check on the previously "invincible" PM and his party.

In another recent development, the extra-parliamentary Slovak National Party (SNP), has started to poll above the 5% threshold required to enter parliament. Should the nationalist party continue that trend, it is likely to drain away some Smer support, though it may also provide a potential coalition partner, as after the 2006 general election.

Fico and Smer remain dominant, but they may also now be wondering what will happen if the AZR leaders throw their weight behind an existing rightwing party, or perhaps start their own.

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