Slovakia: Causes of the Referendum Fiasco

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The Catholic Church tried to do everything to turn out as many voters as possible

Slovakia’s referendum “on the family” (this name was used in the media and in everyday communication, although it really does not correspond to the contents of the questions posed to voters), which was initiated by Alliance for the Family (AZR), an association of Catholic activists, ended on 7 February 2015 in a fiasco that no one anticipated.

Low participation – an invalid referendum

While the referendum’s overall failure due to insufficient voter participation was more or less expected, voter turnout of just 21.4 per cent was like a cold shower for many. The prognoses based on public opinion polls were in the range of 35–40 per cent voter participation, which although insufficient for the referendum to be valid (this would have required over 50 per cent participation) would have provided its initiators with the argument of strong public support. While representatives of AZR insisted after the results had been announced that the 850,000 – 890.000 voters who cast their votes in favour of the three referendum questions is evidence of broad support and that the referendum had been an “amazing adventure” for them, it was impossible to avoid the impression that this was some kind of group self-psychotherapy aimed at overcoming the state of emotional distress in which they had found themselves.

Almost 79 per cent of Slovakia’s citizens ignored the referendum. After the results of the voting were announced, many analysts began to interpret them in various contexts – for example, what they show with respect to current modernising trends in society and shifts in the electorate’s value preferences, or what they mean for relations with minority groups. There were attempts to interpret non-participation in the referendum (i.e. a passive position) as an indicator of voters’ relationship towards certain practical solutions (e.g. in the area of partnerships and family life).

Three questions – really “on the family”?

Without a more detailed investigation into citizens’ motivations for participating in the referendum or ignoring it, however, such considerations may be speculative in character – mainly because the three questions posed to voters did not relate all that unequivocally to the declared issue of “protection of the family” (or to the family as such, as the case may be), and certain commentators maintained that the questions did not relate to it at all. The first and second question (“Do you agree that no cohabitation of persons other than a union between one man and one woman can be called marriage?” and “Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups should not be allowed to adopt and raise children?”) were more about restricting homosexuals’ ability to form legal unions and to raise children within such unions. In the third question (“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?”), citizens were asked de facto to take a position on specific contents of school curriculum. In any case, citizens’ perception of the referendum as a vote “on the family” was strongly influenced by the issue of the status of persons of “non-traditional” sexual orientation, and therefore interpreting the referendum’s results and contexts will require a special analysis. Until such an analysis is performed, one should maintain a certain degree of restraint so as to avoid making hasty conclusions which distort reality. What can already be analysed now, however, are the factors which resulted in low voter turnout.

A puzzled campaign

This referendum was the eighth held since 1994 and had the third-lowest voter participation among them, yet it concerned questions which many commentators considered to be “appealing” or even “mobilising” in nature. According to public opinion surveys taken in autumn 2014, a significant majority of Slovakia’s citizens were inclined to vote “yes” to all three questions should they participate in the referendum. The published results of the surveys were very encouraging for the referendum’s initiators, who presented them as a confirmation that their views were shared by a majority of the population. But what happened at the start of 2015 that caused only one-fifth of voters to turn out?

The referendum “on the family” was initiated from below (i.e. through a petition campaign) by a civic association, not by political parties or their representatives in parliament. This was the first time this had happened since 1994, and thus the AZR association shouldered the main responsibility for the content and course of the referendum campaign. It was initially lacklustre, and later by contrast too aggressive and confrontational.

A confrontation in and of itself can be a relatively effective method of mobilising voters, but it must be accompanied by messages with specific content. Emotion is important, but insufficient. The campaign demonstrated the limitations of using conventional stereotypes in a changing society. Appeals by Catholic activists for the “traditional family” – a simple “mother, father, children” model – may have sufficed for a certain segment of the population, but many others needed an explanation of what was wrong with same-sex couples raising children and how same-sex unions could threaten the “traditional” family. AZR’s representatives failed to offer the public verified data or the results of studies and analyses by academic experts confirming that the adoption of children by homosexuals causes real problems, poses a threat to the “traditional” family or disrupts the development of an adopted child. The argumentation presented was mostly formulated as “it has always been this way, and everything else is bad and unacceptable”. Yet many people in Slovakia today live in unions other than a “traditional” family (unmarried parents with small children, single mothers and childless couples); these people may have found the aggressive propaganda on the advantages of the “ideal” traditional family irritating, and some may even have perceived it as a certain precondition of discrimination.

Moreover, in the first referendum question voters did not understand why they should take a position on something which – through a constitutional amendment in summer 2014 – had already become part of Slovak law. It seems that leaving this question in was a serious tactical mistake, which played into the hands of the referendum’s opponents.

Opportunistic political parties, pressure from the Catholic Church, and the Hungarian minority’s passivity

The political parties played almost no role in the referendum campaign. While their representatives participated in discussion forums in electronic media, they organised no public events or meetings with voters, nor did they put up any billboards or placards. With the exception of the conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and the liberal Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), which gave clear recommendations to their supporters on how to approach the referendum (KDH – vote “yes” on all three questions; SaS – boycott the referendum), Slovakia’s parties behaved like opportunists and alibists. They called upon voters to participate in the referendum, but without saying how they should vote. This strategy was also adopted by the strongest party, the governing Smer–Social Democracy, which even refused to send its representatives to participate in television and radio discussions. Many voters could not take seriously the recommendation to turn out for the referendum and to vote however they pleased. Never before in their lives had they encountered such an opportunistic position.

A great surprise was the role played (or rather not played) by the Catholic Church. Its representatives tried to do everything to turn out as many voters as possible. In churches, bishops read a pastoral letter calling for participation in the referendum; in services, clergymen called upon believers to vote “yes”. It turns out, however, that this was not only ineffectual, but in certain cases even had the opposite effect. For a certain segment of believers, too much engagement in politics on the part of the Church and its representatives is unwelcome. They consider it an impermissible transgression of the boundary between religious conviction and political persuasion.

A notable phenomenon was the extremely low voter turnout among Slovakia’s ethnic Hungarians, statistically almost all of whom stayed home on 7 February. Two explanations offer themselves for this: first, they perceived the referendum through a purely ethnic lens (“Slovaks organised it, so let them deal with it”); second, they viewed the whole issue through a minority lens (“first they want to restrict homosexuals, next it’ll be ethnic minorities”).

Calls for a boycott

All these factors significantly weakened the referendum initiators’ mobilising potential, and this explains why so few people turned out for the referendum. A key reason why so many people did not turn out to vote, however, were activities aimed at encouraging voters to ignore the referendum. This understandably included the very active representatives of organisations associating the LGBTI community, who considered verbal homophobic attacks to be real threats, although their efforts alone would likely have been insufficient for a wider boycott of the referendum. Non-governmental organisations (in particular human rights organisations), civic activists, writers, scientists, artists, musicians and athletes all tried to explain to citizens that participation in the referendum could create unpleasant circumstances for other people who live orderly lives, have committed no offence against society, and should enjoy equal rights and opportunities to those of the majority. Many independent media outlets supported this position as well, and ahead of the referendum called upon their readers not to participate.

The battle between proponents of traditional and modern forms of family life – and more broadly between conservatives and liberals – will evidently not end with the invalid referendum “on the family”. It will depend on how effectively the modernists/liberals are able to exploit their opponents’ major defeat to their own benefit, and how fast the traditionalists/conservatives manage to regenerate their potential in the wake of this setback.

Translation: Evan Mellander