Slovakia: Referendum “on protecting the family”

doll family
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What does Family mean? The Referendum suggests that no cohabitation of persons other than a union between one man and one woman can be called marriage

On February 7 2015, a referendum "on protecting the family" to define marriage as a "unique union between one man and one woman" will be held in Slovakia. The article outlines how Slovak parties deal with the referendum.


On February 7 2015, a referendum “on protecting the family” will be held in Slovakia. The referendum was initiated by the Slovak civic initiative Alliance for the Family (Aliancia za rodinu). In the wake of the September 2013 “March for Life” in Košice and after Slovakia’s National Council voted in June 2014 to amend the country’s constitution to define marriage as “a unique union between a man and a woman”, the referendum obviously aims at increasing hostility towards the LGBTI community in Slovakia.

The referendum will pose the following questions:

  • Do you agree that no cohabitation of persons other than a union between one man and one woman can be called marriage?
  • Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children?
  • Do you agree that schools should not be able to require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behaviour or euthanasia if the parents or the children themselves do not agree with the content of such education?

A fourth question aimed at banning registered partnerships was invalidated by Slovakia’s Constitutional Court. Current opinion polls suggest that voter participation is not likely to exceed 40 percent, which would render the referendum invalid. Nevertheless, coming ten years after Slovakia’s accession to the European Union, it is cause for concern regarding the prospects for gender democracy, equality of opportunity, and the protection of minorities in Slovakia. Slovak LGBTI rights organisations warn that the referendum opens a “Pandora’s box”, enabling the majority to vote on the rights of a minority, and are calling for a boycott. In the following essay, political scientist Grigorij Mesežnikov analyses the individual political parties’ positions on the referendum.

Politicians’ Referendum Mantras

As Slovakia’s upcoming referendum approaches, the media are devoting increasing attention to the positions taken by political parties. Although they did not initiate it, the parties have – for quite understandable reasons – deemed it necessary to take a position on the referendum. Inasmuch as several of them have a clear problem with it, the parties’ positions and the manner in which they are appealing to voters have become part of the referendum cause alongside the three questions being posed. Their conduct is notable indeed. While two parties have formulated their positions relatively clearly, the rest have almost completely abdicated that which constitutes their raison d'être – representing the interests of people with similar (identical) views.

Three ways to appeal to voters

In plebiscites, politicians usually select from among three common strategies. The first is to call upon voters to participate and to recommend that they vote “for” or “against” the propositions in question. Such is the position taken on the upcoming referendum by the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), which has appealed to the electorate to vote “for” the referendum questions. Regardless of how we view the questions’ merits, this position is straightforward and fair vis-à-vis the voters. (“Turn out for the referendum, and vote in such a way so that we get the result we want.”) The second strategy is to call upon voters not to participate. This constitutes a de facto vote “against” in the present context, in view of the requirement of more than 50 percent voter turnout for the referendum’s outcome to be valid. This is the position taken by Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), which opposes the referendum questions. This stance too is transparent and fair to voters. (“Don’t turn out for the referendum, and in doing so deny a victory to those who will vote ‘for’, i.e. for the result we don’t want.”) The third strategy is to leave the question of participation and voting up to the voters themselves – not to mobilise them, and not to recommend how they should vote. (“Do what you want; it’s your business.”) For a party which takes such a position, often with the rationale that it “respects the voters and does not want to force its views upon them”, this is a testament to naked opportunism and an abdication of the party’s basic functions. By assuming this stance, a party signals to its supporters that it does not really care all that much about what they do in the voting booths (if they turn out to vote at all), and that it will accept any decision they reach. This raises the following question: what is the use to voters of a party which is incapable of formulating an opinion on important issues of public concern and of communicating this opinion in a comprehensible manner?

An “original” invention

The 2015 Slovak referendum has revealed yet another option, however, which is breath-taking in its “originality”; indeed, they could patent it as an invention in the category of political alibism. It consists of calling upon voters to participate in the referendum, but not recommending how they should vote. (“The main thing is to participate; how one votes is of secondary importance.”) To justify their position, these politicians use the mantra of the referendum’s importance as an instrument of direct democracy. “We respect the referendum, which is why everyone should participate,” they say with a serious expression on their faces. What they do not say, however, is how they will vote in the referendum, or how they would like their supporters to vote. This is the stance of the governing Direction-Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party.

A right, not a duty

It seems to follow from this position that refusing to participate in a referendum could lead to its denigration, but appealing for participation in a referendum while at the same time not taking a position on the questions posed is far more discrediting to the referendum than calling for a boycott. Advocating non-participation in a referendum (a boycott) is equally justified as advocating participation. Calling for non-participation is not tantamount to rendering unworkable the mechanisms of direct democracy; it is a legitimate strategy, and aims to preserve the status quo. Participation in a referendum is a right (not a duty) of citizens to express themselves on the questions at hand. Failure to exercise the right to participate in no way undermines the referendum as a constitutional institution. To the contrary, in certain circumstances such a strategy can forestall the undesirable consequences of a successful referendum with problematic questions. Who still remembers the questions of the referenda which have been held in Slovakia? Let us recall that politicians in Slovakia have served up questions on the funds used in privatisation, on the non-privatisation of strategic enterprises, on early elections, etc. With the exception of the referendum on accession to the European Union (2003) and the referendum on introducing direct presidential elections which was thwarted by the Mečiar government (1997), Slovakia’s referenda have been rather problematic with respect to the issues addressed. It is thus no surprise that their results have been invalid due to insufficient voter participation.

The opportunism of partisans

The referendum is an important component of our constitutional system, but even more important are the questions which are decided in a referendum. This is why to speak abstractly about the referendum as an important institution and to call upon voters to participate while at the same time concealing one’s own preference and not recommending to voters how they should vote is the pinnacle of cynicism and hypocrisy. Why do many party politicians obscure their positions today? The answer is simple – because the referendum is making their lives more complicated, because they have ceded the initiative in this area to non-partisan actors, and because they fear that a clearer position could cost them the votes of certain groups of citizens. As has often been the case in the past, however, today’s parties are once again overestimating the effectiveness of their mobilisation activities. Especially in the area of family models, citizens’ votes tend to be guided more by their own preferences and life experience than by the recommendations of political parties. Party positions are important here for another reason, however: especially when deciding how to vote, citizens need to know who they are – so to speak – in cahoots with. February’s referendum, whatever the outcome, has exposed Slovakia’s political party scene as an arena of opportunists, alibists and cynics – and with the country’s strongest party leading the way. 

Translation: Evan Mellander