Will political apathy save democracy?
On Saturday 7 February Slovakia will hold a popular vote, which will, if successful, further undermine the legal standing of the local LGBT community in the eyes of the state.
Around 4.4 million Slovak citizens will get the chance to express their opinion on three following questions:
- Do you agree that no other cohabitation of persons other than a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage?
- Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children and subsequently raise them?
- Do you agree that schools cannot require children to participate in education pertaining to sexual behavior or euthanasia, if their parents or the children themselves do not agree with the content of the education?
A popular initiative is undoubtedly part of any healthy democratic system; but because it is a very bland tool, which holds no regard for society’s nuances and complexities, any democracy should limit the scope to which it can be used. Such limits usually consist of a ban on popular initiatives concerning taxes, for fiscal purposes, and human rights, in order to avoid a slippery slope from democracy to tyranny of the majority.
State of play
The upcoming popular initiative – in Slovakia referred to as “referendum” (to confuse you even more, here is the academic distinction between the two) has unearthed the pubescent nature of the Slovak democratic system.
With society slowly opening up to “revolutionary” trends from the West, namely that all citizens should be equal regardless of their sexual orientation, the ever so shrinking number of social conservatives feel more and more threatened.
Not to defy but rather to reflect this fear, the parliament has recently changed the country’s constitution, defining marriage as between a man and a woman only. Surprisingly, though, the change was pushed through by the Social Democratic party which should, judging by its European counterparts, champion LGBT rights rather than undermine them.
Furthermore, in recent months a number of grassroots movements have been set up, mainly to roll back or prevent even more expansion of LGBT rights. A strong lobby of the Catholic Church, along with the conservative NGOs has, for instance, watered down the proposal for the new national strategy for the protection of human rights. The draft was scheduled to be discussed by the Socialist government on Wednesday 14 January, but was instead withdrawn indefinitely.
The superstar among such grassroots organizations is, undoubtedly, the so called Alliance for Family (AZR) which launched, in April of last year, a petition with the aim of calling a national referendum that would put to rest any attempts to equalize LGBT rights with the rest of the society. In a matter of five months, more than 400,000 people signed the petition – a figure which is well above the official threshold of 350,000 required to hold a popular vote.
President Andrej Kiska received the petition on 27 August, but opted for a referral to the Constitutional Court in order to establish whether the questions did not impede fundamental and human rights. If so, the referendum would be deemed unconstitutional and hence invalid. The ruling came two month later on 28 October when the Constitutional Court approved three of the four original questions. The fourth question, foreseeing a ban on prospective civil partnerships was rejected and removed from the list. The referendum, albeit in a streamlined version, would take place after all.
Although there is a little more than a week until the vote, the campaign has already been going on for weeks. From the outset, LGBT activists have refused to heavily campaign for their cause and the little that they have communicated to the public has had to do with discouraging people from participating in the referendum as a whole.
On the opposite side of the argument, the campaign has predominantly, but not exclusively, taken place in churches – and that despite the fact that AZR has self-proclaimed independence from any ideology, religion and political party. Religious institutions, for more or less obvious reasons, have expressed delight over the idea of an anti-LGBT rights referendum.
For instance, in an interview, the Chairman of the Conference of Bishops, Stanislav Zvolensky, called the initiative a legitimate tool in a democratic society in which citizens can express their position on where they stand on the issue of family.
On 6 January, the Orthodox Church circulated a pastoral letter in which it took up issue with the need for sexual education in schools. In the text, sexual education was deemed undesirable as it offered destruction as well as the encouragement of promiscuity. Furthermore, according to Jan Babiak, author of the letter and Archbishop of the Slovak Orthodox Church, parents who refuse to send their kids to school on the grounds of objecting to the sexual education will be criminalized – a claim which has since been rejected by relevant authorities.
But it does not end there. To amplify the message, half-truths and flat-out lies are often deployed in combination with hate speech. Earlier this month, the Slovak Public Broadcaster was forced to cancel one of its regular religious broadcasts, as it felt that the content incited hate towards sexual minorities. The transcript of the homily, among other things, called gays “immoral” and “perverse” and the text urged the public to act immediately in order to stop the “plague” and to oust the so called “filth” beyond the country’s borders.
To broaden its appeal beyond churches, AZR has also released a campaign video in which it tackles the most divisive of the issues: gay adoptions. The video, which has been rejected for broadcast by all major commercial TV channels as well as the Public Broadcaster, depicts a situation in which a child is awaiting the arrival of his adoptive parents only to realize, to his disappointment, that they are both men.
The use of children for campaign purposes has become an effective tool of emotional blackmail – a strategy also used in the second campaign video that AZR has, however, denied any association with the production.
Low election turnout
Regardless of the laws to which the campaign has stooped, one thing is sure: the current debate filled with fear of the unknown, intolerance, and tasteless emotional blackmail will not improve the standing of any traditional Slovak family. Nor will the referendum, because it does not address the real threats to the stability of families: unemployment and unaffordable housing. And while the referendum will certainly not bring any benefits to the majority, it will, nevertheless, undermine the rights of those who belong to sexual minorities.
But not all is lost! Slovakia is notorious for its low election turnouts and out of all referenda to date, only one was successful – that of the country’s entry into the European Union. For a referendum to be valid, more than 50% of all eligible voters must cast a ballot. Such a high threshold may seem all but achievable in a country which saw a 13% turnout in the last EU elections.
In all fairness, in a culture of little political will to break social barriers and where conservative values are firmly entrenched, low turnout is most likely the only straw that LGBT community can cling on to. Not least because the European partners, with the exception of a number of ambassadors and MEPs, notably Sophie in ‘t Veld, have resigned on their share of responsibility to push for progress.
Slovakia is at crossroads; it has a unique chance to reject a mistaken interpretation of democracy as tyranny of the majority. It is a shame, however, that a positive case in defense of LGBT rights has not been made in this campaign, and that the only meaningful action to counter lies as well as prejudices is in this case inaction. On 7 February 2015 we may witness, for the first time in Europe’s history, a moment when political apathy actually saves true democracy.
This text was co-published with europeanpublicaffairs.eu.
Frank Markovic (@FrankMarkovic) is a European citizen and Slovak national. He is a co-founder of the europeanpublicaffairs.eu and is currently working for the European Council of Young Farmers in Brussels. He received a BA in politics at the University of Exeter, and an MA in European Public Affairs at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.