ZAGREB - Agence France-Presse
Same-sex couple Mima Simic and her girlfriend Marta Susak vote in a referendum in Zagreb Dec 1, 2013. Croats voted in a referendum on Sunday to determine if marriage as a "union of man and woman" should be enshrined in the constitution, a move initiated by Roman Catholic groups and criticized as discriminatory by opponents. REUTERS photo
A strong majority in staunchly Catholic Croatia voted Dec. 1 to outlaw same-sex marriage in a referendum sought by a Church-backed group but strongly opposed by rights groups, nearly complete official results showed.
A total of 65.76 percent of voters said they wanted to amend the constitution to include a definition of marriage as a "union between a woman and a man", according to results from almost 99 percent of polling stations released by the electoral commission. Croatia's current constitution does not define marriage.
Passions ran high in Croatia ahead of the vote, with the Church-backed "yes" camp citing the defence of traditional family values and their opponents accusing them of discrimination against gays.
However, three hours before voting ended, the turnout was a rather low 26.75 percent, the electoral commission said. Under Croatian law, a referendum does not require a majority voter turnout to be valid.
The centre-left government, rights activists and prominent public figures had all spoken out against the measure.
But the recent unveiling of a government bill enabling gay couples to register as "life partners" sparked fears among conservatives in Croatia - which joined the European Union
in July --that same-sex marriage would be next.
In May, a Church-backed group called "In the Name of the Family" collected almost 700,000 signatures seeking a nationwide vote on the definition of marriage.
"We showed that we know, like David fighting against Goliath, how to direct our small slingstones in the same direction," the initiative's leader, Zeljka Markic, told her cheering supporters in their electoral headquarters late Dec. 1.
"This time for the protection of marriage, and next time for something else of the same importance," she added, without elaborating.'Fascism through back door'
The vote's opponents denounced the referendum as discriminatory and warned it could pave the way for other conservative initiatives targeting minorities or on issues such as abortion.,
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic labelled the referendum "sad and senseless" and voiced hope it was the last vote on such an issue.
Analysts say economic troubles in the country - which has been hit by a long recession that has left many unemployed and frustrated - has boosted radicalism of all sorts.
"Today homosexuals are on the agenda, tomorrow it will be those who have bicycles, then people with dogs, Jews, we know how it goes," warned Ilija Desnica, a man in his 60s who said he voted "no."
"This is the entry of fascism through the back door." But the powerful Church urged its followers to vote "yes", in a country where almost 90 percent of the population are Roman Catholics.
"Marriage is the only union enabling procreation," said Croatia's Cardinal Josip Bozanic in a letter read out in churches across the country.
"This is the key difference between a marriage... and other unions." The leader of the main opposition HDZ party, Tomislav Karamarko, echoed the view and stressed that "unfortunately, we are obliged to put into the constitution something which is natural." Explaining his decision to cast a "yes" ballot, voter Krunoslav Knezevic told AFP: "I'm a father of three children and that explains everything.
"Marriage is a union of a woman and a man designed so that children are born in it. I'm not certain that a same-sex couple can have children in a natural way," he added ironically.
Despite the result, attitudes towards gay rights have slowly become more liberal in Croatia. When the country's first Gay Pride parade was held in Zagreb in 2002, dozens of participants were beaten up by extremists.
In 2003 Croatia adopted a law recognising same-sex couples who have lived together for at least three years - although apart from official acknowledgement, the measure grants them few rights.
The vote also was the first citizen-initiated referendum since Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991.