The Croatia marriage referendum: Expert analysis from Zagreb Special

Posted Dec 3, 2013 by Paul Bradbury
As international reaction to the marriage referendum continues, Digital Journal talks to one of Croatia's leading PR and elections advisors, Krešimir Macan.
Kresimir Macan  one of Croatia s leading PR  election and communication strategists.
Kresimir Macan, one of Croatia's leading PR, election and communication strategists.
Kresimir Macan
Croatia's referendum on the definition of marriage on Sunday has attracted plenty of column inches around the globe, but the issues behind the simple 'yes' vote are a little more complex - Digital Journal spoke to one of Croatia's leading PR experts and political analysts, Krešimir Macan on December 3, 2013, to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the referendum and the potential fallout from it.
Macan, who runs his own successful private consultancy firm Manjgura, is a respected Croatian PR professional specialising in crisis management, strategic communication in politics and new social media, and is a former Communication Advisor to the Prime Minister of Croatia.
1. Sunday's referendum on marriage sent out a clear message from the Croatian electorate. Were you surprised at the result, and what was your take on this, the first petition-inspired referendum in the country's history?
To most of political analysts the outcome was not surprising at all, since there was nothing spectacular in Sunday's results. Much ado about nothing, as some wiser and older guys would say. The left government provoked the Catholic Church in Croatia with its "sexual education" a year ago. Since the right opposition party, HDZ, had not shown enough leadership, people like Zeljka Markic (from 'U Ime Obitelji' - In the Name of the Father, the pressure group that brought about the referendum) took the lead and orchestrated one of the best political campaigns so far in Croatia. From idea to realisation it was almost perfect. They were underestimated by everybody in Croatia and this gave them space for success. The biggest trick of all was the question "Are you in favour that marriage is between a man and woman". For Croatia which is 90% Catholic and has a family law with the same sentence - the automatic answer would be "YES" - ZA. We were struck when 8 year-old kids were asking out of curiosity - if this is the question why would people think of voting AGAINST?
Sunday s referendum question.
Sunday's referendum question.
To cut a long story short - when right-wing parties are in power in Croatia they can do anything because they tell their voters to be calm - for example they can enter into a coalition with Serbian parties, pass legislation that is currently under scrutiny in Vukovar etc. But when left parties are in power, right parties or movements are taking "the edge of Christianity" stand from Turkish times. With a lot of help from the current government and the prime minister who unintentionally give them a strong push from time to time with clumsy moves. Because this government most often acts as SDP government for its own party only, not the government that is supposed to be the government of the all citizens of Croatia.
The other issue is that political elites both left and right decided two years ago to remove the cap on referendum turnout so as not to have problems with the EU referendum, so citizens and the Church used this against them very efficiently. This is why the government is eager to change the law on the referendum very quickly.
Results - the right parties will register at least 30% of the vote in a worst case scenario, if not even more - so this is no new force emerging from this referendum - 25% YES votes is roughly the number of people going to church on a regular basis, although not only they voted FOR - FOR vote was a mixture of everything but predominantly right voters (some survey showed that up to 40% of left SDP voters were in favour of the question - this is still traditionally the form of family like that in this part of the world). The campaign was ugly and frustrating and this also kept many people at home, while mobilising some of YES voters since some media took a strong position in favour of AGAINST.
Overall, it did not do much harm - but it will give much-needed momentum to politics in Croatia - because with such a weak opposition, government has been unchallenged and inefficient in dealing with the economic crisis. Now there is an ambitious, clever movement on the right wing which has already stated that their next moves are more of a political nature - no to sale of highways, water etc.
Voters in Jelsa go to the poll after morning mass
Voters in Jelsa go to the poll after morning mass
A long-term positive is that the last two months of campaigning has helped Croatians learn more about the LGBT population than in all the previous years of Gay Prides that Croatia has held since 2002. and since the government is ready to grant them nearly all rights expect adopting kids, this could result in more rights being legally granted to LGBT couples. Of course "U ime obitelji" will try to defy it, but since the government is not trying to call it a marriage, it'll be very hard to dispute it.
2. There has been lots of negative reaction in the international media from various quarters. Do you think the vote has had a negative impact on the country's international standing?
For a while it might have some negative impact, as long as the news of the referendum is in the spotlight - especially when the spin was that Croatia is going to a referendum to ban gay marriages - but in fact the case was that Croatia was going and voted that gay marriages can not be called marriages, as it is already in the Family law. Despite that fact the LBGT minority was improving its legal position over time. This is not an issue on which the EU has a clear stance and it is left to countries to define it. Croatia had more of a reputational problem with "Lex Perkovic", which provoked a month-long dispute with the EU Commission, and all this was provoked by Croatian Prime Minister Milanovic's stubborn position on that.
3. There is talk of boycotting Croatia as a tourist destination by various gay rights groups. Do you think the vote will affect the country's tourism?
Macan  with former Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Račan.
Macan, with former Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Račan.
Kresimir Macan
There was news today that Croatia might be moved from the list of gay-friendly destinations, but not boycotted. So I do not see much damage since with the new law being passed on LBGT this might come to rest. Anyhow gay tourism - especially cruises - are relatively new to Croatia - if I'm not mistaken they date from 2010. And I do not remember any bad incidents recorded ever related to gay tourism.
4. How would you describe the progress of gay rights in Croatia since independence?
There was little or nothing moving until 2002. I was part of the government that initiated the first Gay Pride in Zagreb 2002. and since then it has become accepted and traditional I would say. This is why Zagreb was only 56% ZA this Sunday. The 2002 Gay Pride was followed by law changes which recognised some legal rights for non-married couples and then via Law on same sex unions from July 2003. Some material rights were granted to those couples. In the following two mandates of right governments not much changed, and new initiatives started again in 2012, with the new left government. They succeeded in organising Gay Pride in Split (after the scandalous one in 2011 - the city of Split voted 69% YES), pushed for "sexual education" in schools with the controversial chapter IV on sexual orientation which sparked the referendum we are talking about.
5. What would be your message to gay tourists considering a holiday in Croatia in 2014?
The same I give to my friends in Serbia - you are welcome and do not pay attention to media noise you hear. It is more viral than real - if you are not looking for trouble yourself, nobody will pay attention to you - you are welcome tourists as any other. And people working in tourism now say that gay tourists are better payers and tippers:-)
6. It seems to be referendum season in Croatia, with a second petition - a vote on minority language rights triggered by Cyrillic signs in Vukovar - now attracting enough votes to warrant a referendum. What is your view on this?
While the marriage referendum could have been interpreted many ways, this one had the direct intention to limit some right of minorities and the government has already stated that they will not allow it - of course if legally possible. Even it it happens I'm quite certain that campaigning against this one will be stronger and that it will not pass. But it is already another big political challenge for the government that has to fight petitioners, the opposition, the Catholic Church and the Constitutional Court all at the same time, since they are good at making everybody an enemy. We had a very similar pattern from 2000-2003 - right parties used protests to mobilise voters on The Hague and war crimes issues and then when it came to power completely cooperated with The Hague. So I predict a similar scenario - with one exception - the economic situation is much worse than it was then - so voters will not be satisfied with games only, they 'll ask for some bread to be given to all of them.