Maltese vote in tightly contested divorce referendum
VALLETTA—The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta held a referendum on divorce Saturday, with opinion evenly divided on the issue but the influential Catholic Church strongly backing the “no” camp.
A pre-poll opinion survey also found around 40 percent of the electorate undecided over the emotive issue.
The non-binding referendum asks the island’s nearly 400,000 mainly Catholic voters whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.
Malta is one of only two countries in the world—the Philippines is the other—that bans divorce. Chile was the last country to legalize divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.
Legal separation is widespread in the European Union’s smallest member state, but people cannot normally re-marry.
Marriages can only be annulled by the Catholic Church’s Ecclesiastical Tribunal in a complex and rare procedure that takes around eight years.
The only exception to the divorce ban is for Maltese married to foreign nationals or Maltese who are permanent residents abroad.
Critics argue that legalizing divorce would open the floodgates, increasing the rate of marital breakdowns and destabilizing the family.
The “no” camp, backed by the Catholic Church and the ruling conservative Nationalist Party, has appealed to family values and the indissolubility of marriage vows.
The “yes” camp has urged voters to spare a thought for those who are separated and would like to start another family with someone they love.
Polls opened at 7 am (0500 GMT) and were to close at 10 pm, with early results expected Sunday afternoon after a manual count.
Catholics make up some 95 percent of the population of Malta, which counts one church for every square kilometer.
The archdiocese had a letter read out in parish churches last Sunday saying: “By this vote, the citizen will either build or destroy. A choice in favor of permanent marriage is an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed.”
In addition, priests have reportedly threatened to refuse communion to those who vote “yes” in the referendum.
Lawyer Andre Camilleri, who heads the “no” campaign, says divorce is not a solution to marriage break-ups and warns of the effect on children.
“By enacting this divorce law the state would allow the party — even the one who caused the break-up — to not only separate from his spouse, but actually impose a divorce on him or her,” he said.
But family lawyer Deborah Schembri, leader of the pro-divorce campaign, says people suffering because their marriage had fizzled out had a civil right to be able to get married again and start a new family.
As things stood, she said, they were being forced into cohabitation.
“We are saying give love a second chance. What right do I have to decide on another person’s future? Divorce is an option. These people will have the chance to start afresh,” she said.
Political parties have largely stayed out of the debate during the long run-up to the vote.
The Nationalist Party has taken a stand against divorce while the opposition Labour Party is keeping its options open, leaving the decision up to individual members.
“Divorce has to be treated rationally and not on some religious dogma,” Labour party leader Joseph Muscat said earlier this year.
“I want to live in a European country (which) means having a set of European values,” he said.
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