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Referendum and Protests – October 7 and Before, October 15 and After in Bucharest

With the commemoration of the Colectiv club fire coming up, I really have to get around to writing something about the referendum and the infuriating but ultimately successful strategy of boycotting it. And while I’m at it, I’ll also add a quick note about a ruling about protests that also came earlier this month, which complicates matters a whole lot. Since I had no involvement in either, or none except to lash out against the boycott and once again place myself in firm opposition to both sides as a result, plus that, even if the boycott succeeded in preventing the change from being made in the Constitution, both matters are leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, there’s not that much to say. So don’t expect the usual amount of details, but I have to at least mark the moments, even with such a delay.

While it had been announced for a long time, as a result of far more than the required number of signatures being submitted in support of it, and various dates had been put forward, this referendum about changing the term “spouses” to “one man and one woman” in the article from the Constitution that currently states that “the family is founded on the freely consented marriage of the spouses, their full equality, as well as the right and duty of the parents to ensure the upbringing, education and instruction of their children” was something held in reserve until the ruling coalition, and likely Dragnea in particular, needed this diversion desperately enough. As such, the vote was pushed when they ended up in too much trouble to manage otherwise and the referendum was approved with overwhelming majority on September 11, and it was also decided that it’ll take place over two days, October 6 and 7, and that the measures which allowed instant verification to prevent people from voting more than once won’t be used. Under those circumstances, it seemed set to pass one way or another, and also count as a rehearsal for the next elections.
Even if gay marriage is currently illegal in Romania and therefore such a modification wouldn’t have actually changed anything in practice, only making it a lot more difficult to grant this right in the future, it was clear that if it came to an actual vote, the large majority of Romanians would support the change, so the only hope to prevent it was for the referendum to fail due to a low turnout, the law currently stating that a referendum is valid if the turnout is at least 30% and at least 25% cast a valid vote. In fact LGBT groups and the large majority of their supporters, including most known activists and groups from the “old guard”, had already stated that their position was to boycott any such referendum, and the few political parties opposing this change adopted the same stance. There was a meeting organized on September 19 by one of the main LGBT NGOs, supposedly to decide what to do about the referendum, but in fact the decision had already been made and the few critical voices were being viciously attacked and accused of working for their opponents, their stance being that the community had reached this decision and anyone who didn’t close ranks to stand with them without complaints fought against them.
There was a protest against the referendum and the discrimination implied by it on September 30, in the afternoon, in Victory Square, the organizers saying that the authorities had caused problems and completely rejected any request for a march as well, but either way, the reports I see state that only about 150 attended. Not that a high turnout was in any way expected, but I for one would have expected a few times more at least, so that turnout seemed to indicate that the support for the boycott might have been even weaker than thought, and definitely no match for the might of the major parties and most other ones as well, the Church and most other religious organizations, and various other interest groups, including foreign ones, which were joined in support of this change. It just seemed that the boycott would merely ensure that the modification was going to pass with almost 100% support, blocking any discussion about even other options, such as civil partnerships, for a long time to come, while on the other hand a mobilization of those opposing the change had a good chance to produce a visible minority, maybe even up to 30% or so, which would have had every right to demand such alternate solutions right away.
The one notable voice to make that argument was Remus Cernea, though even he stated that he was going to cast an invalid vote. Now you’d think that Remus would be impossible to be seen as an opponent of the LGBT community, after fighting for them to the point of completely compromising any shred of hope for a political career he might have still had and even leaving the country, though he had returned at that time. Even the projects for civil partnerships are his, from the period when he was a member of the Parliament. Yet that’s exactly what he was accused of, some going as far as saying that he had used them to build his image and political career and now is betraying them, when if you think about it the betrayal was theirs, since the number of votes he got when he ran as an independent in 2016 makes it clear that, after all of that, the large majority of the LGBT community in Bucharest didn’t even bother to give him a vote. But, as I already said, their behavior was utterly vicious against anyone not falling in line without complaint… Apparently vicious enough to even make him back down eventually, when much more powerful groups and even society as a whole hadn’t managed to do that before. He didn’t fully support the boycott, but stated that he will stand in solidarity with it until the required turnout will be reached, then go and cast an invalid vote as planned.
Well, it didn’t come to that, because the required turnout was never reached. Even many of those supporting the boycott were talking of the difference between a slim chance offered by this strategy and no chance otherwise, though as the date approached more seemed to actually believe that the referendum will fail. Whether that was wishful thinking or not, not sure, but as the numbers were coming in it became more and more likely that they’ll be proven right, and that was indeed the case, the required 30% never being in any danger of being reached. Now it should be clear that the vast majority of those who didn’t vote just didn’t vote, many not voting at all in general and even less so in case of a referendum, so the low turnout doesn’t indicate a support for the LGBT community and it’s questionable how much of an impact the boycott had at all, but the good news is that it would appear that not many people oppose homosexual relationships enough to actually act on that stance even in this simple way. The number of “yes” votes was in fact so low that I even wonder whether a massive mobilization of the “no” camp wouldn’t have offered a chance to win.
There was an event announced on October 7 for the LGBT community and their supporters who wanted to follow the results together, and that obviously turned into quite a party, but there may be deep rifts to bridge after this. While those who supported this referendum failed to change the Constitution, they did succeed at least to some extent in making people fight each other over their differences, and what’s worse is that this didn’t just happen between existing groups that were already at odds, but even created this bad blood between those who should have been on the same side. Recovery will take time and won’t even start if it’s not sufficiently desired, and I have serious doubts that those who so viciously attacked those who didn’t fall in line with them particularly care for such a healing process. But I guess we shall see.

The other issue has to do with a court action started by some activists with the intent of obtaining a clear ruling regarding the right to protest, since the old law that still applies to public gatherings first states that all such events must be notified ahead of time, but then specifies some exceptions from this obligation, one particular exception leaving room for interpretation and being constant cause for conflict between protesters and gendarmes, and a lot of fines and contestations, which were ruled very differently, depending on which judges happened to deal with them. Normally, an exception has priority over the general rule, and most courts supported this stance in this case as well, yet the final decision, which came on October 15 and is mandatory for all courts from now on, states that notifications are mandatory for all public gatherings even if they would fall under that particular exception.
What’s even worse is that the ruling still leaves the specifics of that exception undefined, which under these circumstances leaves much room for abuse from the authorities. But even without such abuse, this ruling pretty much eliminates the chance of successfully contesting fines for protesting and will therefore greatly stifle protests from now on. Seeing as most protests over the past two years have been triggered by the ruling coalition’s onslaught, real or perceived, against the justice system, this ruling is actually quite baffling. As one of the known activists put it, seems that we’re fighting for the justice system while an important part of it roots for the wolf, as the saying goes.
The one silver lining, if there may be one, is that, same as the law itself, the ruling again just specifies notifications, not any authorization, despite authorities and much of the media always talking of “unauthorized” protests. With the requirement to submit such a notification at least three days before the event, this still blocks any spontaneous protests or quick reactions, but does not require the signing of any protocols and allows even the lack of a response to be seen as an indicator that there will be no reason to fine the organizers or participants. In practice, however, things are quite different, with those trying to submit such a notification having to go through a tedious process, face a committee which I understand only meets once per week and often tries to use every trick to block the protest or at least greatly reduce its visibility, and sign a protocol making them responsible for many things, plenty of them out of their control, and therefore likely to get large fines whenever the authorities want to make an example out of someone.
What will happen from now on is quite unclear, but the future looks bleak. It would appear that notifications exist for the Victory Square protests until the end of the year, and one that was to some extent a reaction to this ruling as well took place on October 21, but with people confused and disheartened by it, likely feeling betrayed and attacked from all sides, only hundreds attended, or maybe up to around 1000 according to some reports. For anything else, however, a new law is even more desperately needed, but what’s even more concerning is that, while the attempts by some activists, working first with Remus Cernea and then with a few members of USR, to put forward a proposal didn’t get anywhere, in part also because USR apparently decided that the “political opportunity” for it didn’t exist so far, multiple leading members of the ruling coalition, obviously emboldened by this ruling, are now pointing out this need as well, and it’s obvious that their ideas about the needed changes are pretty much the opposite of those desired by activists, and their proposals will obviously be far more likely to get approved.

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