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.
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.