Gay-Marriage Ban Flops in Romania Because Voters Aren’t Fools

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Romanians had two days over the weekend to vote on a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. The balloting was the government’s attempt to distract citizens from more important matters, like a flagging economic boom, but it didn’t work: Voters failed to turn out. Though the post-Communist part of Europe remains hostile to expanding gay and transgender rights, the Romanian experience shows that populist hot-button issues don’t necessarily work as political rallying devices. It depends strongly on who’s trying to use them.

Not a single post-Communist country in Europe has expressly approved marriage equality. Even the region’s European Union members have resisted EU pressure while being forced to recognize marriages performed in other EU nations. Last year, Slovenia became the first to allow same-sex marriage, but not adoption by gay couples; a 2015 referendum went against granting same-sex couples full marriage rights.

The Czech Republic is the closest to full legalization: A gay-marriage bill was submitted to parliament in June, though it faces high-profile opposition. But Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. In Romania, the Orthodox church and the ruling Social Democratic Party backed last weekend’s referendum to add the country to this list by stating in the constitution that marriage is a union between one man and one woman.

The gay-rights divide is perhaps the clearest border that still exists between eastern and western Europe. It’s more pronounced than the remaining economic difference (Europe’s south isn’t much wealthier than its east anymore), and it’s more comprehensive than the relatively recent clash on immigration. While some ex-Communist nations aren’t strongly anti-immigrant, gay marriage is rejected by poll majorities throughout eastern Europe, with the Czech Republic the only exception. 

Because of this divide, caused by both the Communist-era rejection of homosexuality and by eastern Europe’s strong religious traditions, which regained ascendancy after the fall of Communism, it’s been easy for politicians to exploit the issue as a national-sovereignty red line. An anti-gay campaign was part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-Western pivot since he returned to power in 2012. In Hungary, the same-sex marriage prohibition in 2011 was part of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal policy shift; it was billed as a way to keep Hungary’s population growing. In Croatia, nationalist parties were telling voters ahead of a 2013 referendum that traditional Catholic values transcend the EU’s dictates. 

The Romanian government has used similar rhetoric ahead of its referendum. “We all know that for years, we’ve been told that others know better how we should live, how we should act, that others know better what’s good for us,” Social Democratic Party leader Liviu Dragnea said after he voted yes to the gay-marriage ban. “I think it’s time for us to decide what society and what country we want to have.”

Dragnea is appealing a 3.5-year prison sentence he received in June for his role in giving fake government jobs to party functionaries. The Social Democratic government, which came to power in 2016 on the strength of generous social promises, is beset with corruption accusations which, coupled with the government’s attempts to cut the strong anti-graft powers of the Romanian justice system, has led to mass protests in the last two years, most recently in August. At the same time, the country’s economy, which grew 6.9 percent in 2017, is starting to slow down, with growth expected at 4.1 percent this year as faster inflation undermines consumer spending. 

This clearly looked like a good moment for the government to switch the public’s attention by invoking nationalist, conservative sentiments and siding with the Church on something that’s important to believers. After all, this worked for Croatian nationalists; they were in opposition when they won the 2013 gay-marriage referendum, and the victory helped swing public sentiment in their favor. They regained power in 2015 and have kept it ever since. 

In Romania, however, voters didn’t buy the diversion. Despite, unusually, being allowed to vote for two days, they ignored the referendum; fewer than 21 percent turned out, well under the 30 percent required for a valid vote. This doesn’t mean Romanians have suddenly turned pro-gay-marriage; according to polls, they are strongly against same-sex marriage regardless of political affiliation. Their boycott of the vote was a protest against the government’s attempt to use a hot-button issue to stave off discontent.

“Many Romanians who were favorable to the issue of this referendum didn’t come to the polls just to give Dragnea a slap and to avoid serving Dragnea,” Ludovic Orban, leader of Romania’s biggest opposition political force, the National Liberal Party, told a press conference. 

Dragnea’s failure to score on a seemingly fail-safe nationalist, conservative issue isn’t just a signal to him from Romanian voters, though. Mainstream politicians in Europe and elsewhere should pay attention, too. Voters aren’t fools. They won’t be distracted by appeals to knee-jerk instincts, like dogs by a squirrel. Even populist slogans are effective only when the people putting them forward are preferable to the alternative. If you’re a member of a ruling centrist elite and voters prefer a populist candidate, that doesn’t mean they’ve fallen for cheap rhetoric. It means they’re extremely unhappy with you.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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