Funny thing, democracy. Apparently it’s OK to have a referendum on gay marriage but not OK to have a referendum on policing powers for the military. This, at least, will be the final take-away of deliberations of the Constitutional Court on recent referendum issues. Namely, after having OK’d a disputed referendum on the new marriage legislation, the court is poised to nix the referendum on increased powers for the military, further cementing its appearance as a senior citizen’s club trash-talking the issues of the day without caring either for the effect this has on the society as a whole or on the legal system in particular.
Graphics by @mapixel
Now, it should be said that neither of the outcomes is at all surprising. Not with this particular composition of the court, that is. But the problem is the inconsistency that stems from that. Especially since this exact same court a couple of years ago came up with a “human dignity” benchmark when deliberating on whether to repeal a city ordinance naming a street in Ljubljana after Marshal Tito. But despite the fact that the court bent over backwards in coming up with at least a semi-coherent definition of human dignity as a legal and consitutional concept, it was never ever applied again. Question is, why?
Random Senior Citizens’ Club
The short and the long of it is that the judges are acting more and more like nine randomly selected, rather well-off senior(ish) citizens, who – by the very nature of things – tend to lean conservative (as in “preserving status quo”) and more often than not decide from their particular view-point rather than from an eagle-eyed view of an ever-evolving democracy they were mandated with.
To put it crudely, you might as well go to a posh restaurant in downtown Ljubljana, randomly pick nine individuals aged 50+ and you’ve an even chance of coming up with similar decisions. The only difference being that the judges are able to dot the i’s and cross the t’s as far as legalese is concerned. But in substance, there would be little discernible difference.
Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the referendum on the amended law on family and marriage, which allows for same-sex marriage by simply redefining marriage as being “between two people” and not anymore “between a man and a woman” was allowed, while the referendum on army having jurisdiction over civilians will in all likelihood be denied. It’s how a substantial number of Slovenians close to retirement age, when unchallenged, think about these issues.
The thing is, that the Constitutional Court is not “a substantial part of Slovenians close to retirement age” but rather the (pen)ultimate guardian of the republic, founded on civilian control over the military and equality for all. But at this particular moment, that’s the way the cookie crumbles and there’s little we can do about it.
Really? Not exactly.
The GOP, Slovenian edition
While the referendum on same-sex marriage will be held on 20 December, the result is by no means a given, even though a much more comprehensive piece of legislation which included same-sex weddings was voted down three years ago. In fact, despite the vote being only two weeks away, there has been, until this weekend, an eerie quiet on the ground, with sporadic fighting going on only within the social media bubble. While no-one expected this to last, it does seem to suggest that outside the campaign proper, which is bound to pick up in the coming hours and days, there is little new to be said on the issue.
That, of course, does not mean that both YES and NO campaign are preaching solely to the choir. According to a Delo poll, the voters are split down the middle with 40 % being in favour and 41 % opposed to the legislation, which means there’s a roughly 20 % of the electorate available to swing the vote either way. And in this, the opponents of equal rights enjoy a huge advantage, as they don’t have to present actual fact, they only have to make people afraid. Of whatever. In fact, you could do worse than to draw a comparison between the NO campaign and the current GOP primaries in the US of A. You can totally see The Donald, Cruz and Rubio as being at the forefront of the Slovenian opposition to same-sex weddings. They’d fit like a glove.
Losing ground, gaining ground?
That scare-mongering tactics work, goes without saying. The problem is that the ultra-conservative opposition is far less sure of their own position this time around. Both in terms of arguments as well as in terms of numbers. Which, again, is strikingly similar to the position the Republican party is in. Their core base is shrinking, and while the scare-mongering may rally the supporters of the NO campaign it is far less sure to sway those who haven’t decided yet. And this in a situation where every vote might count.
Aleš Primc, one of the heads of the NO campaign is well aware of this, which is why he suddenly started making an issue out of voters’ registers. Namely, it turns out that, on average, fifty people per day die in Slovenia. From Primc’s point of view this translates into fifty people who could have voted no but won’t. And since the State Electoral Commission makes the final update of the registers about ten days before the vote (they take their data from the Central Citizenship Register), on the day it sends out invitations to all eligible voters to vote in a referendum, this means that around five hundred people who will not be voting due to the fact that they will be dead, will still be eligible to vote.
Now, normally, this wouldn’t matter. But unlike the election process, where the resulting percentage of votes is calculated against votes cast, the last iteration of referendum rules calls for a two-step verification. A referendum result only overturns the law passed if a majority of votes cast are against but only if the total votes against amount to at least 20 % of the entire electorate. Including those five hundred dead people who are projected to pass away in the days between the final update of the voters’ registry and the actual vote.
Five hundred votes is not exactly a big number and since last year’s referendum on archives was held under the exact same conditions and no-one objected, the State Electoral Commission told Primc he doesn’t have a leg to stand on, but it all goes to show just how nervous the ultra-conservatives are about the final outcome. And if the whole thing does indeed come down to the wire and the NO campaign ultimately loses, you can be sure the result will be challenged one way or the other.
No man is an island
Adding to the complication for the NO campaign is also the growing discrepancy between their general world outlook, which is (nominally, at least) pro-Western and their stance on marriage equality, which is, well, increasingly pro-Eastern. I mean, just look at it: You’ve got devoutly religious countries, big and small, such as Argentina, Brasil, Ireland and Luxembourg (to name but a few) adopting marriage equality. You’ve got the US of A and the United Kingdom doing the same. You’ve got countries that are predominantly Catholic, Protestant or atheist doing the same thing over and over again: Spain, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, France…. the list gets longer and longer every year. Point being that the opponents of same-sex marriage in Slovenia are increasingly left without outside reference. Hell, even the Pope went soft-ish on the LGBT issue in general. Point being that no man is an island and that for all the doubts and misgivings the Slovenian electorate might have about the issue, there is mounting evidence that the world doesn’t end if people of the same sex can get married.
This of course does not prevent the NO side from coming up with a plethora of run-for-your-lives bullshit, including (but not limited to) the claim that same-sex couples will be “buying babies from surrogate mothers” and that “your kids will be turned into gays and lesbians by schools teaching them same-sex ideology”. Now, these and similar claims have been refuted time and again, the latter most effectively by Jure Šink (link in Slovenian), who held a senior position in the education ministry during the Janša 2.0 government. Which is yet another hint at the fact that the NO campaign is struggling with a broader appeal even with people with whom it would probably find common ground on other issues.
And yet, there is still every possibility that the YES camp loses yet another vote. Not just because bleeding voters on one side does not automatically translate into winning them over for the other side. It could be that come referendum Sunday, not enough people will be bothered to vote YES even though they support equal rights in the first place. This especially goes for GenY voters and even younger (apparently called GenZ) who take so many things for granted that they can rarely be bothered to care. I mean, LGBT rights, In Slovenia at least, are a cause old at least three decades. The vast majority of GenY wasn’t even born when gays and lesbians were starting their struggle in what was for that day and age a liberal environment. And one could argue that back then in many respects Slovenia was much more liberal than it is today. But since LGBT citizens have almost the same level of rights as their heterosexual compatriots, this can create a false sense of complacency to the tune of “ah, well, another time perhaps”.
Yes, there will definitely be another time. On the whole, the trend appears to be irreversible. But no right was simply acquired, every single one of them was fought over and won in a protracted struggle. So, the question for young voters, who are one of the key demographics for the YES campaign, should not be “why should I bother” but rather “why this wasn’t fixed already?” and then get out the vote and fix it.
The YES campaign will also have to stay on message. That alone might prove hard enough. Namely, as many as 39 organisations have announced they will be partaking in the campaign which means that they get to have their say at least once. The majority of those are in the NO camp which means the ultra-conservatives get to have more exposure on a minute-for-minute basis than the YES campaign. And since a majority of the NO camp is consisted either by astroturf organisations and one-man-band crackpots, this puts the YES camp in the dangerous position of trying to refute the absurdest of claims thus wasting time, energy and credibility (pengovsky wagered 20 euros that someone will try to combine the same-sex marriage and the refugee crisis into one big scare mechanism).
The pitfalls of a substantiated argument against a “let’s shit all over them, something will surely stick” was described quite well in this Metina Lista podcast where Briški and yours truly talked to Grainne Healy of the Irish Yes Equality campaign which won the constitutional referendum in Ireland in May this year, enshrining equal right to marry in the country’s constitution by a surprisingly large margin.
The tl;dr of it being stay on-message, let others deal with bullshit and get the vote out.
Which basically sums up the next two weeks in Slovenia as well.
P.S.: At Diogenes’ request, here’s a translation of what YES and NO votes actually mean.
By voting YES, you vote in favour of enacting the law that was passed by the parliament and which makes it possible for LGBT couples to enter into marriage legally.
By voting NO, you vote to reverse the decision of the parliament, thereby allowing only heterosexual couples to enter into marriage legally, while keeping LGBT couples a couple of legal notches below, at “registered partnership” level.