Is Croatia’s ‘yes’ vote tyranny of the majority?

A referendum on definition of marriage could result in actions curbing minorities’ rights.

Croatians voted for a clause in the constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman [EPA]

On December 1, Croatia, the newest European Union member state, held a referendum on same-sex marriage. However, unlike other European countries, Croatia was not voting on its legalisation, but on whether a new clause, defining marriage as a “union between a woman and a man”, should be included in the constitution. The preliminary results show that 65 percent have said “yes”.  

The referendum was called for in reaction to the election promises [Sr] of the ruling coalition to give certain rights to same sex couples. A Croatian Catholic group “In the Name of the Family” launched a petition on this matter, gathering 750,000 signatures. As a result, the Croation parliament, with 104 out of 151 votes, decided to open the decision-making to the public, through a referendum. Although less than 40 percent of the 3.8 million [Sr/Hr/Bs] eligible voters actually took part in the referendum, the results are binding, as there is no required quorum.

A regional homophobia?

Although most Balkan countries include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws, Croatia’s call for referendum and the petition do not come as much of a surprise to anyone in the region. Past attempts at asserting LGBT rights have been greeted with contempt and sometimes outright violence.

Croatian analysts and intellectuals indicate that the referendum on marriage is just a prelude to the referendum on the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the first Sarajevo Queer Festival was attempted in 2008, but it ended on the first day, due to violent attacks on guests and organisers. Similarly, in Serbia, the Pride Parade was cancelled for the third time this year, because of right wing threats and the apparent inability of the authorities to ensure safety. Violence also escalated during the Pride Parade in Montenegro in October when almost 2,000 police officers were deployed to guard the participants.

Attempts at advocating for LGBT rights in the Balkans have in many cases become opportunities for extremists to exert certain versions of religion, nationalism and morality, and a sad outlet for public homophobia, violence and hatred.

However, before labelling the Balkans as intrinsically intolerant and hateful, as some foreign journalists tend to do (who can forget Kaplan?), we must remember that many other democratic countries do not fare much better when it comes to this question. This year’s poll from the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that a quarter of the LGBT population in the European Union have experienced attacks or violent threats. Religious groups and the general population across Europe, the US and the world tirelessly debate the same question which was asked in the Croatian referendum, and this is not in any way, unique to Croatia, or the Balkans.

Can minority rights be subject to a referendum?

If the referendum was held in any other European country, it is not unconceivable that the results would have been similar to that in Croatia. However, what is unique and shocking is that a referendum such as this one was allowed to take place.

The question is not about the definition of marriage, but about using a referendum, a supposedly democratic form of expression, in order to limit the rights of [Hr] an already marginalised minority group. In this case, it was not even a matter of majority – only 25 percent of Croats [Hr] actually said “yes”. However, public apathy ensured that the proposition of a small conservative group became a law and changed  the constitution.

The ruling political coalition urged citizens to vote “no”, and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has called the referendum a “sad and senseless” [Hr] exercise. As the representative of the movement “Citizens Vote Against”, Sandra Bencic has argued [Hr], this time a referendum was used to infringe upon the rights of LGBT population, but next time, it can be the rights of anybody else.

What is next?

Croatian analysts and intellectuals indicate that the referendum on marriage is just a prelude [Hr] to the referendum on the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia. Whether the alphabet should be used or not has, over the past few months, brought much tension and clashes in Vukovar, a Croatian city with a large Serb minority (which writes in Cyrillic) and a place of vicious fighting during the 1990s war. The nationalist and conservative groups have organised protests against bilingual signs on public buildings, and have launched a petition on this matter. Both referendums are seen as attempts of nationalist Croatian Democratic Union and conservative right wing groups to regain political power.

However, although the matter of same sex marriage is not regulated by the EU, rights of ethnic minorities, including use of language, are clearly protected through the Framework Convention for the Protection on National Minorities. If the referendum goes ahead, it is expected that it will face strong opposition from the EU.

What groups behind the petition need to understand is that using a referendum to infringe upon the rights of others is an abuse of democratic means towards achieving an absolutely undemocratic goal. It does not matter whether the question asked refers to the same sex marriage, use of Cyrillic alphabet, women’s position in society, rights of religious groups, or persons with disabilities, the bottom line is that a referendum like this should never have received Parliamentary approval, as it clearly misses the point of democracy.

The fact that thousands of Croats are protesting the referendum and its results, while the prime minister has declared his intent [Sr] to proceed with a bill extending certain rights to same sex couples shows that there are people in Croatia who know that a crucial principle of democracy is the protection of those who think differently. 

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.