Romanias dangerous family referendum

When voters in Romania turn up to vote in a referendum in October, they might think theyre casting a ballot on the legal definition of a family. In reality, the votes consequences are much further-reaching. They are a distraction from the countrys pressing problem of corruption.

At the ballot box next month, voters will be asked to back or strike down a proposal to alter the constitution to restrict the definition of a family to one based on the marriage between a man and woman.

In truth, the initiative — launched in 2015 by a coalition of NGOs that receive backing from the Orthodox church — is a dangerous diversion tactic. For the government, which gave its backing to the proposal, its a useful way to distract voters, thousands of whom took to the streets earlier this year to protest rampant corruption.

As such, the vote is doubly dangerous.

To begin with, it would replace the current neutral description of the family with one that only recognizes married couples of opposite sexes. As a result, the rights of other non-traditional families — a single parent raising a child, a rainbow family with two same-sex partners, a grandparent raising grandchildren — would not be constitutionally protected.

This referendum is an attack on human rights happening within the European Unions borders.

But thats not the only reason for worry. The government hopes the referendum will rally voters — many of whom, outside Bucharest, are socially conservative — behind it.

Supporters of the proposed constitutional alteration are attempting to use this divisive, hurtful and anti-family campaign to distract from public dissatisfaction with their policies. It might not be corruption in the financial sense, but their actions are certainly morally bankrupt.

The ballot papers will ask voters to change more than ink and paper in the pages of the constitution. They are asking to restrict who gets to be called a “family” for generations to come.

There is no upside to this campaign. The rights of married couples of opposite sexes will stay the same, while different types of families would see their legal protections stripped away. It is entirely contrary to the EU values of dignity and equality to ask voters to strike the fundamental rights from their fellow citizens.

This referendum is an attack on human rights happening within the European Unions borders. It wont dominate headlines in the same way as rule-of-law procedures against Hungary and Poland have, but it is part of the same ultra-conservative movement attempting to undo democratic progress and divide communities.

Protesters against government corruption in front of the Romanian government headquarters in August 2018 | Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

Human rights organizations and citizens in Romania are already urging voters to stay at home on October 7 to invalidate the result, which needs a 30 percent turnout rate to be considered valid. That would show this vote for what it is: a shameless exercise in political opportunism.

The government, in response, has issued an emergency ordinance to allow the referendum vote to take place over two days instead of one, in an effort to gather more votes.

This is a departure from the usual referendum procedure in Romania and a wholly cynical move.

The campaign threatens to undermine the efforts of democracy campaigners in Romania. European political parties and EU institutions should speak out against it and urge Romanians to boycott the referendum. Next months vote is about more than “just” weddings — its about the future of the EU and Romanias place in it.

Evelyne Paradis is the executive director of ILGA-Europe, an umbrella organization working for LGBTQ equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia.

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