Third Time Unlucky (Take-Aways Of A Referendum Defeat)

Now that the heads have cooled off, the gluttony of various light-related festivals passed and the sordid reality of yet another year finally sunk in, it’s time to take a long look at the can of whoop-ass that was opened on the same-sex marriage legislation on 20 December. As most of you know, the third iteration of the marriage equality bid failed. Spectacularly.

Final, albeit unofficial, referendum results. Chart via ChartGo

Namely, not only did the NO campaign clear the much-hyped quorum hurdle with relative ease (more than 20% of all eligible voters voted against the measure), it also added 100k voters to the cause in comparison to the ill-fated Family Code, the 2012 attempt to resolve the issue via a comprehensive legislative package. The result came as a rude shock to the YES campaign and as an (unwelcome) surprise to pollsters who are starting to see changes in voters’ behaviour that make predictions even harder. Still, a few take-aways are obvious.

Battles are won or lost before they’re started

Sun Tzu‘s quote, although obvious or useless (or both) seems rather apt for the occasion, as all the work by the YES camp resulted in exactly zero progress in the field. The total number of people who supported same-sex marriage this time around is almost exactly the same as the total number of people who supported it in the 2012 vote. They may be different people, but the reach of the progressive side effectively remained the same. This suggests a complete misreading of the field at the very start which led to an ineffective campaign which did nothing but get the vote which most likely had in the bag anyway.

Cultural learnings of the right for make benefit the glorious political option of the left

We all live in a bubble, and yours is smaller than you think. One would think that the progressive side had learnt that lesson the last time around, but apparently not. Srsly, people, the few hundred followers that agree with you don’t mean shit. There was a noticeable lack of dialogue in this campaign, as if neither side really wanted to engage the other. And while the YES campaign probably avoided contact to prevent itself getting drawn into needless fights, the NO campaign, hard at work since March when the law was initially passed, thus remained happily undisturbed at enlisting support and amassing troops. The NO campaign also understood exactly what was at stake and what it needed to do to shoot down the law, while the YES campaign (and, more broadly, the progressive side in general) apparently had little grasp of the opponents’ gameplan and at times seemed to hope things will take care of themselves.

Things don’t “just get better”

pengovsky realises that LGBT NGOs are probably thinking “what more could we have done” and, in all seriousness, the answer is “probably not much”. Theirs is a worthy cause and they’ve been at it for the better part of the last three decades. But that doesn’t mean things will suddenly fall in place. Not when there’s a substantial part of traditional left-wing voters who are, well, traditional and will vote against same-sex marriage regardless of their general political persuasion. Which explains the lacklustre campaign performance by both junior coalition partners, the DeSUS and the SD (with PM Cerar’s SMC putting only slightly more back into it). Just because something is right, or just, or just plain overdue, it doesn’t mean it will just happen. This sort of perception is a problem that has plagued the progressives for the last few years at least (and possibly longer than that) and is something they need to fix ASAP.

If anything can go wrong, it will

There seems to be little respect for the wisdom of Major Edward Murphy these days, but just like Sun Tzu’s seminal work, Murphy’s laws should (once again?) become required reading for political strategists. At least in this sorry little excuse for a country. Apparently the strategy regarding this law (insofar it existed at all) was based on the optimistic scenario of the law getting passed in the parliament, presuming that even if the NO camp collected enough signatures to call a referendum, this would be rebuffed by the Constitutional Court on human rights ground and even if that failed, there would be no way the 20% quorum would be reached. And even if this was a plausible scenario at one point in time, it is almost outrageous that no contingency was planned in the event that the worst-case scenario were to unfold. And when it did, the YES campaign was struggling to get its shit together.

Ground game matters, you can’t win by playing defence

You see, the NO side was hard at work ever since the law was passed. Not only did they have a basic network in place from the last time around, they had worked hard in expanding it. Arguably, they’ve more than compensated for the resources spent on defending Janez Janša during the Patria affair and the operation the right has in place right now is nothing short of formidable. The YES campaign and the left in general on the other hand failed spectacularly in this aspect. Reports from the field suggest that there were almost zero attempts at taking the game to the opponents’ side of the pitch. What little ground operation there was in the YES camp, it was limited to friendly environment and even there results were meagre.

Winning on the internets counts for nothing

Most observers agree that the online population was tilted heavily in favour of the YES vote. But counting on online support is almost like preaching to the choir. And even there the level of engagement was, well, lacking. This is where the inexperience of campaign principals (specifically, the United Left) showed in its entirety. For some reason, they were apparently convinced the key to the victory was the internets. Just how they came to that conclusion is beyond comprehension. Maybe they thought it was the key to their own political success in 2014 elections (it wasn’t). Or maybe they thought the NO campaign collapsed after that bizarre debate ten days before the vote (quite the opposite). At any rate, winning just the internets is useless.

The new referendum rules are not a game changer

Although the double-whammy of the new referendum rules seemed like it will take of the problem by itself, it didn’t. In fact, the United Left, which by virtue of sponsoring the latest iteration of the same-sex marriage legislation was running the show, at first apparently toyed with the idea of calling on people to boycott the referendum (which they wrongly assumed would not be allowed) but then came to the realisation that the only way to beat this would be to win a relative majority, fair and square. The lesson here being that although the new rules can weed out referendum antics the likes of Arhcive referendum, proper political fights are less affected by the new rulebook.

Even if you think rules favour you, you should study them in-depth

The NO camp was a bit nervous at some point regarding the outcome. That Aleš Primc bugged the State Electoral Commission (DVK) over the accuracy of voters’ registers and whether people who died in the last ten days before the vote (the interval between the date of posting invites to the vote and the vote itself) will count towards the quorum proves this. Now, at first, the commission told Primc to go suck a lemon but he managed to secure enough support in the supervisory body of the commission to have the rules on this altered to his advantage. Thus the final rule, announced just days before the vote, stated that the commission would update voters’ registers to reflect the number of eligible citizens on the day of the vote. Not that the NO campaign needed this particular tweak in the rules in the end, but the point is they did get their way. Because they knew the rulebook.

Get the vote out

No, really. I mean, if you make exactly zero headway in widening your reach compared to the last time around, you might want to go back to the drawing board.


Hopefully, someone will do the last item, at least. Pengovsky has no doubt Slovenia will legalize same-sex marriage. The trend seems to be both world-wide and irreversible. But it needs help and a well tought-out strategy. Because left to its own devices, Slovenian society, known for its glacial pace of accepting change (or accepting nearly anything else, for that matter), will, well, warm to the idea some time in the mid-2080’s, probably several years after Iran and Saudi Arabia will have already legalised same-sex weddings.