When doing politics, doing nothing is clearly not the right approach - but doing nothing was the effective strategy against the Family Referendum in Romania. #Boycot-ting the referendum was one of the main tools by which the Romanian youth won the Family Referendum. Doing nothing is sometimes more effective than doing something.
The main focus of this article is the discursive battle for meaning (Maly, 2016) regarding the Family Referendum in Romania. I will focus on both sides -the Pro-Referendum proponents as well as the Boycotters - framed the issue. That framing, I will argue, is important because it creates a complete new political reality.
The Family Referendum as metapolitics
As the majority of our world’s best thinkers have constantly urged humanity to ask the simple question of ‘why?’ The same will occur now. Why did the Family Referendum take place in the weekend of the 6th and 7th of October? And why did the Romanian government feel the need to promulgate and publicly support such a constitutional change? The simplest answer would refer to the manipulation of the masses, but there are a couple of facts we need to illustrate before this conclusion can be reached.
The Family Referendum was not about winning per se. Rather, it was about letting certain ideas circulate and spreading the desired message.
Article 48 of the Romanian Constitution defines the family as being founded by “the free will marriage between spouses”. The Coalition for the Family, formed by a number of conservative NGOs, launched the initiative to amend the constitution a couple of years ago; in 2015 they submitted a 3 million signature petition to the government in favor of changing the definition of the family from the actual gender-neutral language of ‘spouses’ to the explicit ‘union between a man and a woman’. This initiative was strongly and publicly supported by the Romanian Orthodox Church as well as by conservative political parties, including the Social Democratic Party of Romania.
Worth highlighting here is that the Family Referendum can be seen as metapolitical, because it was not about winning per se. Rather, it was about letting certain ideas circulate and spreading the desired message. Depending on the interest group citizens affiliate with, these messages could be either filled with hatred directed towards the LGBTQ community or loaded with ideas regarding basic human rights and aspirations to supposedly core European values.
But before all else, it is important to know that previous referenda failed in Romania due to a strict requirement of 50% voter turnout in order for the results to be valid. This rule was changed in 2014 when the threshold was lowered to 30% of registered voters for a binding referendum. Even with this lowered threshold, the Family Referendum failed due to a voter turnout of only 21.1%. The government’s efforts to make this referendum become a political reality (and keep the ballot open for two full days) can be seen in the highly mediatized discourses around the issue.
Was the Referendum necessary? No. Had the measure passed, same sex marriage would have been unconstitutional in Romania. But the reality is that same-sex marriage was already illegal in Romania. The discursive battle was thus not directed on changing policies, but on the circulation of ideas, conservative ideas.
Same-sex marriage was already illegal in Romania. The discursive battle was thus not directed on changing policies, but on the circulation of conservative ideas.
The Coalition for the Family led an aggressive propaganda both online and offline by spreading messages such as “Vote yes to the marriage between a man and a woman” and “Save the children of Romania and the marriage between a man and a woman”. The angle of the debates shifted from a policy point of view towards highly religious messages and hateful propaganda against the LGBTQ community. Striking was the fact that the LGBTQ community, a minority within the Romanian borders, was faced with fighting a battle they did not ask for. There was no intent of legalizing same-sex marriage before this Referendum took place.
Political actors in the Family Referendum
Striving to move as far away as possible from its communist past, Romania’s political spectrum is still haunted by the ‘leftovers’ of that era. Liviu Dragnea, the president of the Social Democratic Party is a key player in the battle around the Referendum. Together with the Coalition for the Family, he openly supported the initiative to amend the constitution. He publicly stated that the Family Referendum was necessary because “the people are frightened by countries where marriages between humans and animals are legalized.”
Again, the follow up question would be: why did the president of the Social Democratic Party decide that a Family Referendum was of utmost importance? The answer is simple: personal interests. In order to understand the personal implication for this character, we shall move back a couple of months, to August 2018 when one of the biggest protests Bucharest had seen in the last years took place.
Citizens took over the main squares of the capital demanding Dragnea’s resignation and chanting about freeing the country of corruption. The protest against the Social Democratic Party might have translated in a great loss of its popularity among the people. Therefore, this referendum could be seen as a personal test to demonstrate that it is still in touch with the citizens of Romania. By delivering what the people want - a redefinition of the family in the Romanian constitution - the party would pave an easier way towards the next election. The failure of the Referendum can thus be seen as an overall failure of the Social Democratic Party in bringing people out to vote. Ludovic Orban, National Liberal Party leader, stated that: "This was the Romanians' impeachment vote for the Social Democrat Party."
Besides the ex-communist Social Democratic Party, other political entities in favor of the Referendum were The Christian Democratic National Peasants’ Party and The New Right. On the other side of the battle, the boycott of the Referendum was politically represented by Save Romania Union (anti-corruption party), Green Party (green liberalism), and Pro-Romania Party (Social Liberalism).
These messages reflect the idea that the Family Referendum was a threat to democracy and that in a democratic state absolutely everyone is seen as equal.
A discursive battle for meaning occurred between the two opposing sides, whereby each delivered its own definition of democracy. People boycotting the Family Referendum were communicating messages such as “Rights should not be voted on” or “Love should not be voted on”, along with more extreme messages such as: “Let’s not forget the Holocaust was the will of the majority.”
These messages reflect the idea that the Family Referendum was a threat to democracy and that in a democratic state absolutely everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or identification, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and race is seen as equal, and not a subject to divisions between people who are 'worthy' and people who are not.
The opposing, pro-Referendum party claimed that people should vote because of the fact that they live in a democratic state. Staying home was painted as an anti-democratic act because one ignores one's duty to vote. The secretary general of the Social Democratic Party, Codrin Stefanescu called the Romanian president Klaus Iohannis laughable for being on the boycott side and not urging the people to vote. On top of that, he said that the boycott movement “ridiculed the Romanian traditional Family, the Orthodox Church and Democracy.”
Before his presidency, Iohannis was affiliated with the National Liberal Party, which held a neutral position in the debate. Two days after the Referendum, President Klaus W. Iohannis illustrated the overall tensions in the aftermath of the events by referring to the core values in a democracy, using powerful terms such as societal peace and tolerance: “The first step towards the re-establishment of societal peace is abandoning the hate discourses and acknowledging that together, and only by means of tolerance we can overcome this event that jeopardized our unity.” Moreover, in the same context of the Referendum he called for unity: “The discrimination of a minority based solely on the fact that it does not depict the same faith, values, religion as the majority does, embodies an approach which reminds me of the dark ages of dictatorship. The moment when societal peace is threatened, and sadly we have many examples of this happening in the last weeks in Romania, especially in the preparation of the Referendum for the amendment of the constitution, it is in great need for a mature approach and an openness towards dialogue with all the actors involved”
The Family Referendum: Online and Offline Mobilization
With different goals and target groups on both side of the battle, propaganda took place by means of digital communication on various social media platforms, especially Facebook. The effects of this online mobilization were also deeply felt in the offline context. Each side had its own tactic and resources which they perceived as successful and influential.
The Boycott side wanted to target the youth of Romania, the young educated people who believe in the core values of the European Union and have the same vision on human rights and democracy. For them, Facebook was the appropriate medium to deliver this message. The official boycott Facebook page and the Facebook page of the MozaiQ (an NGO dedicated to the LGBTQ+ people) were the main players in distributing posts dedicated to the boycott movement.
Vlad Vitski, president of the MozaiQ group, commented: “For the LGBT community in Romania this is a huge victory after three years of fighting against conservative voices, against hate speech. We are glad and we applaud the Romanian people for standing up against intolerance and hatred. It is a huge victory for the Romanian democracy, which keeps Romania on its European path, where minorities are respected. 17 years after the 2001 decriminalization of homosexuality, we see that Romanian society is changing for the best. We have gained thousands of allies throughout this fight for equal rights and now we are asking major political parties to show responsibility and legalize civil unions as soon as possible. We deserve rights, we want rights, we won't stop.”
The Boycott parties were not the only ones who shared these messages online. They were also distributed by average users who supported this movement, and by official pages of companies such as Coca Cola and Netflix. Messages like "We don’t see any difference" and "Binging. It’s your choice with whom you want to do it" quickly became popular amongst the boycotters, which can be deduced from the increased amount of likes and shares.
The liking and sharing of these messages can be framed under the term of algorithmic populism, defined by Maly (2018) “as a digitally mediatized chronotopic communicative and discursive relation”. Therefore, social media took the role of a battlefield for both sides and was a place where anyone could voice their own stance on the Referendum.
With different goals and target groups on both side of the battle, propaganda took place by means of digital communication on various social media platforms.
The redistribution of these Anti-Referendum messages was crucial for the Boycotters because the liking and sharing of these posts by common users helped fostering popularity for their cause. The moment these messages went viral, it was a great step towards informing the citizens on the 'true' meaning behind the Family Referendum.
Besides the online activism, the Pro-Referendum side led an aggressive and expensive propaganda campaign offline, whereby banners and flyers were placed on the streets of Bucharest and villages with messages that urged people to vote and “save Romania” as well as on flyers on bread packaging in the supermarkets.
The reason these parties took the campaign to the streets is simple: they wanted to target the common people, the people who are not as open-minded and informed, the average Christian who fears that homosexuals 'will steal their child'. Yes, that was indeed one of their messages: “If you don’t go and vote, homosexuals could adopt YOUR baby”. The means by which they spread their propaganda showed again how their sole target was to influence the masses, to deliver a message to the common citizen and induce hatred towards a minority who did nothing wrong.
So, Christians or Europeans?
Because Romania is a highly Christian Orthodox country, being Romanian often implies being Orthodox. This does not necessarily posit any complications, unless the Church imposes its beliefs on political issues. Because Romania is a laic state, the church should not intervene in the electoral process or in advocating the Pro-Referendum campaign and urging people on social media to vote in favor of the referendum. Or have Romanian priests advise people to go to the referendum during sermons. The Official Facebook page of the Coalition for the Family used highly religious discourses in urging people to vote, by emphasizing how important it is for Romania that the Orthodox Church has the power to urge people to vote, ending with the powerful statement of “God save Romania”
On the other side, the Referendum was seen by International Organizations as a threat to human rights and equality happening within the European Union’s borders. “This referendum panders to homophobia and if approved and implemented, would not only breach Romania’s obligations under international human rights law and EU law but would also severely impact the lives of families not based on marriage. It is an attempt to deny them the right to family life” said Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International.
What can we learn from the Family Referendum?
So, what should the take home message of all of this be? Well, firstly, this Referendum made Romania 35 million Euro’s poorer. Yes, organizing a useless Referendum is indeed expensive. As is investing in propaganda. Romania does not have a highway crossing the country from A to B, neither does it have properly equipped hospitals or educational institutions. Seen from that angle, the Referendum was a clear waste of resources.
The Family Referendum made Romania roughly 35 million Euro poorer.
As stated in the beginning of this article, the sole purpose of the Referendum was to distract the masses from the actual problems that the country needs to deal with. Among these problems, corruption holds a high position. A cleanse of the political system is highly necessary in order for the people to see that an irrational fear sparked from a gender-neutral definition of marriage that was always there will not cause as much damage as being governed by corrupt politicians who implemented policies for the decriminalization of corruption.
Maly, I. (2016). ‘Scientific’ nationalism: N‐VA and the discursive battle for the Flemish nation. Nations and nationalism, 22(2), 266-286.