The road to Romania’s constitutional referendum from October 2018 began back in 2015. That is when the civil initiative group Coalition for the Family started gathering signatures for a proposal to review article 48 of the Constitution. What was at stake? The modification of the definition which stipulated that the family is based upon “the freely agreed union between spouses” into a formulation which clarified that it was a “union between a man and a woman”. The referendum failed to reach the necessary quorum for validation, but it did manage to create a rift in Romanian society.

This referendum certainly stood out through its redundancy. Altering article 48 would not have changed the status quo in Romania, as marriage is already legislated in the civil code and clearly outlined there as being between a man and a woman. Inserting the same formulation in the Constitution would not have altered the state of things in the present, but it would have made progress towards same-sex marriage harder. As the Constitution can only be modified after a referendum, another one would have been necessary to go back to the current formulation which contains “spouses” if gay marriage were to be legalized. This farsightedness is no surprise though. The Coalition’s campaign was certainly sure to insist on their concern for the country’s future. It was this malicious foresight and desire to ensure the restriction of LGBTQA rights far into the future which drew the most ire, with Human Rights Watch calling the referendum “particularly opportunistic and insidious”.

While the proposal managed to gather 3 million signatures, the referendum did not attract enough voters to count. Around 3,700,000 people showed up at the polls, but that barely passed the 20% mark and still fell below the needed 30% threshold. With over 90% of the valid votes being in favour of the proposed modification, it is easy to credit the boycott as an important factor at play. Rather than show up and boost the numbers towards obtaining the needed quorum, many Romanians opted to stay at home during the two days of voting. Romanian LGBTQA groups like MozaiQ also spearheaded a boycotting campaign under the slogan “Love isn’t voted on”. However, the anatomy of this particular failure involved more then just the boycott.

While many boycotted out of support for the LGBTQA community or disapproval of the issue being put up to popular choice, just as many must have stayed at home because that is what they usually do. Romanians’ voting patterns certainly show a rising apathy towards the democratic process. The 2012 referendum also did not reach the quorum required to be validated (though it was much higher, set at 50+1%). Romanians aren’t too keen on parliamentary elections either, with only 39.5% voting in 2016, 41.72% in 2012 and 39.2% in 2008. This apathy was surely another contributing factor. Moreover, the referendum became strongly associated with the ruling party headed by Liviu Dragnea and his rising unpopularity seems to have rubbed off. The Coalition for the Family’s admission of defeat certainly also pointed this way, as they blamed the lackluster support and organization from political parties, amongst other factors.

Regardless of what the deciding factor for staying at home was, the decision to do so has at least put the initiative to bed for the time being and provided a win for the Romanian society as a whole. It is certainly bracing to see this referendum fail, not only for the LGBTQA community, but also for anybody hoping to see Romania progressing in the area of protection for minority rights. But is it too much to hope for this to have been the push needed for a form of civil union to be legalized? Such proposals have been forwarded to the parliament on several occasions, but most didn’t make it very far. Things seem to be moving along better at the moment, with a law proposal for such a domestic partnership or civil union being steadily pushed along and debated in parliamentary groups. It will surely be interesting to see if this referendum provided the necessary impetus for such a step.