Malta votes yes to legalising divorce

Malta Today broke a press embargo, for 10pm after voting closes, to reveal that the Maltese Church would tell worshippers and voters of “its sorrow… if anyone felt hurt by any words or action from members of the Church.”

Malta has voted yes in a non-binding referendum on legalising divorce, the island’s prime minister Lawrence Gonzi has conceded.

Almost three-quarters of the electorate voted on Saturday on whether divorce should be introduced in Malta. With a 95% Catholic majority, Malta is the only EU country not to allow divorce. If the referendum result is upheld by parliament it will leave the Philippines as the only country in the world where married couples cannot divorce each other.

Figures gathered by the electoral commission after polling stations had closed showed that turnout was 72%, according to the Times of Malta. “Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected,” Gonzi said in a televised speech.

Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce, said it was now up to parliament to enact a law legalising the dissolution of marriage on the island. The Catholic church supported a no vote during the campaign.

The leader of the yes movement, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, of the governing Nationalist party, said the result was significant.

“It brings Malta into a new era where the state and the church are separate,” Orlando told the EFE news agency.

The decision of the 306,000 voters of the conservative and deeply traditional Mediterranean island is further evidence of the waning influence of the church. Legal separation is widespread in the European Union’s smallest state but there are many obstacles to remarrying.

The church did not campaign before the referendum but Malta’s archbishop, Paul Cremona, warned churchgoers in a letter that they faced a choice between building or destroying family values.

A billboard reading Christ Yes, Divorce No in Malta. Photograph: Reuters

Joseph Muscat, the pro-divorce leader of the opposition Labour party, said that a new Malta had been born. He urged a divorce debate in parliament as soon as possible, saying that he was confident that anti-divorce Labour MPs would not thwart the will of the people.

Divorce legislation is expected to squeeze through parliament as the ruling Nationalist party has a one-seat majority.

Mario Fava, a 37-year-old office manager who has been legally separated for seven years with no chance of remarrying, said he was delighted by the result. “It is a very positive outcome, with 54% in favour. After such a long time most people can now make use of this new freedom so definitely it’s a step in the right direction.

“Obviously it’s very different from a general election so while everybody who voted yes is delighted, there are no street celebrations going on, no car cavalcades or anything like that.”

Malta was occupied by Arab invaders in the 10th century before mounting a fierce fightback against an Ottoman siege in 1565. A century-and-a-half of British rule, which ended in 1964, put an Anglo-Saxon stamp on the culture but Malta remained a strongly Catholic country. The country also forbids abortion. Pope Benedict XVI visited the island last year.

For weeks Malta has been plastered with posters showing a picture of a child alongside the slogan: “I trust you with my future – vote No.”

In the referendum, Maltese voters were asked whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.

Previously, couples could apply for a legal separation in the courts, or seek a church annulment – a complex process that can take up to nine years. A third option was to get divorced abroad, which would be recognised as valid in Malta.

Chile was the last country to legalise divorce in 2004 after overwhelming public pressure.

Fighting between the yes and no camps continued right up until the polls closed, in spite of a ban on influencing voters. There were local reports of pressure on voters, especially the elderly and vulnerable, to come out and vote against the divorce proposals, while some blog posts showed pictures of elderly people and nuns at the polling station with the caption “are you prepared to leave your future in their hands?”


With its 7,107 islands and a population of 94 million people, the republic of the Philippines couldn’t seem more different at first glance to Malta. The world’s twelfth populous country is 90% Christian, of whom 80% are Catholic. The faith was brought to the islands by Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who served Spain’s King Charles I in his quest for a westward route to the Spice Islands. Should Malta ratify its referendum the Philippines will be the last remaining state (along with Vatican City) to forbid divorce.

The Guardian | David Sharrock | 29th May 2011

One Response to Malta votes yes to legalising divorce

  1. During the divorce referendum there was also pressure on elderly people to vote yes! There was complete confusion in the media. The media was monopolised in favour of yes campaign. Articles against divorce were not published by some of the major newspapers and websites!

    And there was complete confusion: Divorce was mixed with politics. There were people who voted yes only because the minister taking care of privatisation said (on a TV programme) that he would resign if divorce is legalised in Malta. The minister is not resigning now, but people wishing to secure themselves from the threats of privatisation voted yes!!.

    Others voted yes because they belonged to the labour party who was promoting the yes vote.

    No one showed us that if divorce is legalised, we will have many children living like Cindirella – with a step-parent they do not know!! And they will have to do so by law!!
    Won’t there be a need for assessment of the ability of the new partner and of the house they will go to live in (like when a child is adopted)?

    The day after the referendum results were issued, people and children were crying.

    An example is a woman who did all the necessary sacrifices to raise her children within a family where the husband leaves for a few weeks whenever he likes and then returns back whenever he wishes. She never wanted to live with another man because despite of his defects, her husband is her kids’ father. She believes that this is the best for her children. She does not want to force her children into a trauma to live with a man they would not know and who is not their father.

    Now what will happen to this woman and her children? She owns half of the house; the rest belongs to him. Her husband is nearing pensionable age. She never did paid work except as a mother and housewife. Who will provide her a living if the man will no longer have any obligations towards her?

    We as a nation did not have time to realise that there are people who will suffer because of divorce. The church was not equipped to deal with the matter in such a short time span. Politics tried to make the situation worse…politics played the role of the pharisees when they asked Jesus about whether they should pay tax to Cesare!

    Every politician knew that divorce is painful, that it will cause more pain, it will frustrate children, that it will not solve any marriage problem.

    The only people who will benefit are those who want to get rid of an obligation towards their family at the cost of abandoning it! It does not matter that the family will suffer! It does not matter that the children feel not loved and abandoned! Abandoning children is not good morality! We speak about child abuse. Then how can a parent abandon his children! Why is this not child abuse?

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