Slovakia’s anti-gay referendum: When political apathy saves democracy

By Frank Markovic

On Saturday 7 February Slovakia held a popular vote, which, had it been successful, would have further undermined the legal standing of the local LGBTI community in the eyes of the state. Around 4.4 million Slovak citizens got 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.

In the end only one fifth of the registered voters cast their ballot on Saturday rending the referendum invalid (the threshold set by the constitution is 50%). And while an overwhelming majority of those who did vote answered ‘yes’ to all three questions the LGBTI community hailed the failure of the referendum as their victory. There is a catch, however. Regardless of the outcome of the vote on Saturday, Slovakia still largely remains a conservative country where protection of sexual minorities takes in the best case scenario a form of political apathy and where, until now, the issue of LGBTI rights has proved politically toxic.

State of Play

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 months 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, was allowed to take place.


Ahead of the vote on 7 February, Slovakia’s public sphere was heavily dominated by the referendum even though the campaign was from the outset ignored by the LGBTI activists who have refused to engage with the initiative.

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 did not end there. To amplify the message, half-truths and flat-out lies were often deployed in combination with hate speech. Earlier in January, 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 and to his visible 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.

Political apathy to the rescue of democracy

Granting that LGBTI rights are human rights and leaving aside the fact that the Slovak constitution specifically forbids popular initiatives concerning questions on such rights a popular initiative of the kind that took place in Slovakia last weekend is a reminder of how imperfect European democracies can be.

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.

Regardless of the lows to which the campaign stooped, one thing is sure: the debate filled with fear of the unknown, intolerance, and tasteless emotional blackmail did not improve the standing of any traditional Slovak family. Nor did the referendum, because it did not address the real threats to the stability of families: unemployment and unaffordable housing. And while the referendum certainly brought no benefits to the majority, it could have, if successful, undermined the rights of those who belong to sexual minorities.

On Saturday Slovakia stood at crossroads; it had a unique chance to reject a mistaken interpretation of democracy as tyranny of the majority. And reject it did! And while on 7 February 2015 we witnessed, perhaps for the first time in Europe’s history, how political apathy saved true democracy, protection of Slovakia’s LGBTI community has still a long way to go – not least because political apathy may be useful in defending a status quo but it will certainly not actively contribute to a positive case made on behalf and by the LGBTI community.

This text was originally published by europeanpublicaffairs.eu and Visegrad Insight.