6 October 2018

On Saturday and Sunday Romania will hold a controversial referendum on the definition of family that could rule out same-sex couples from ever getting married.

The divisive referendum, initiated by civil society group Coalition for Family, which is strongly backed by the prominent Orthodox Church, aims to change the current constitutional definition of family from a union of ‘spouses’ to a union between ‘one man and one woman’ — in an attempt to block future moves that could legalise same-sex unions. 

The referendum will need a 30% turnout — or 5.5 million votes — to be ratified, which has prompted civil rights campaigners to urge people to boycott the vote for fear that it could lead to higher levels of intolerance and hate speech against the LGBT community, in a largely conservative country.

“We already see the effects of the referendum among our LGBT+ brothers and sisters: more attacks, more fear, more bullying,” says 30-year-old Mihnea-Mihail Florea, co-founder at MozaiQ, a Bucharest-based LGBT rights group. 

In recent weeks, anti-gay propaganda has appeared throughout the country on large banners, billboards and even bread packaging. “From respect for our grandparents; caring for our children, vote yes, in the referendum,” read one banner in Bucharest.  

“Priests and church leaders are warning people that they could be excluded from the church for not voting,” Florea added. 

The referendum comes at a time when Romania is frequently at odds with the EU, which scolded Romania earlier this week for compromising the rule of law in a country plagued by corruption. 

“It’s about keeping the public agenda busy with a topic which, its political backers believe, would score political points for the ruling coalition,” says Radu Magdin, an analyst at Smartlink Communications. 

Earlier this week, 47 MEPs sent a letter to Romania’s PM, Viorica Dancila, condemning the referendum, which the letter says “has the potential to harm children in all families.”  

The letter also questions the validity of the vote taking place over two days, rather than one day, which is usual in Romania. 

“We are concerned that this could be construed as a deliberate attempt to influence the outcome of the referendum, by ensuring the 30% threshold of participation is met,” the letter states.  

The threshold will likely be met and a yes vote should pass, which will further pit Romania against the liberal ideals of the EU.