Overwhelmingly Catholic Malta has voted to legalize divorce, Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi announced yesterday, after votes were counted following a non-binding referendum the day before.
Gonzi, who campaigned against the introduction of divorce in the last European country where it was illegal, said it was now up the parliament to enact a law legalizing the dissolution of marriage.
The non-binding referendum asked the island’s 306,000 mainly Catholic voters whether parliament should introduce a new law that would allow couples to obtain a divorce after four years of separation.
Polls opened at 7am and closed at 10pm and just over 34 percent of eligible voters had turned up to cast their ballot by 2pm, government officials said.
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 EU’s smallest member state, but people cannot normally re-marry.
Voter Louis Cassar, 43, said he feared the impact on society of a yes vote.
“I voted against because I am convinced that the introduction of divorce will weaken the family rather than strengthen it,” he said.
However, Victor Bajada, 76, said his religious beliefs had guided him on the issue.
“I obviously voted no because God is my creator and my guide. He does not want divorce so I don’t want it too,” he said.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Maria Bugeja voted yes because “it’s about time that our country grants this civil right, irrespective of moral issues. Those who are bringing up religious arguments must remember that the Church is against the use of divorce not against its introduction. We voted yes for those people who need it to have the option to use it.”
A woman who gave her name only as Jane, 36, added that she wanted to see separated people free to get on with their lives after a marriage breakdown.
“I am separated and I voted yes, not because I plan to use it, but because I know of many people who are separated and who have found a new love and have no option but to live with them rather than get married and start their new family officially,” she said.
Marriages in Malta can only be annulled by the Catholic Church’s Ecclesiastical Tribunal in a complex and rare procedure that takes about eight years.
The only exception to the divorce ban is for Maltese married to foreign nationals or Maltese who are permanent residents abroad.
The no camp, backed by the Catholic Church and the ruling conservative Nationalist Party, appealed to family values and the indissolubility of marriage vows.
The yes camp urged voters to spare a thought for those who are separated and would like to start another family with someone they love.
Catholics make up about 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 on Sunday last week 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 voted yes in the referendum.
Lawyer Andre Camilleri, who heads the no campaign, says divorce was not a solution to marriage break-ups and warned of the effect on children.