Maltese Greens – divorcing Church from State

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Participants at the GEF conference on divorce held in Malta last October and organised with the support of the Maltese Green foundation Ceratonia

On Saturday May 28th 2011, Maltese voters went to the polls and by a 6% margin backed a referendum to introduce divorce. Prior to this it was close to impossible to obtain a divorce in Malta, even if the marriage had irrevocably broken down for years. The only exception was recognition of divorces granted in foreign jurisdictions, a loop hole that only the wealthy could afford to avail of.

There were many reasons explaining why it took so long for Malta to take this step. The strongest reason was the still dominant position of the Catholic Church in Malta, which unlike some of its counterparts in the rest of Europe had not had its authority diminished by scandal. There was also unwillingness from the major parties to tackle such a major issue, which had the potential to be quite divisive. Maltese politics is heavily dominated by the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party; no other party holds seats in the Maltese Parliament. As a result, their failure to address the issue kept it locked out of political debate.

It was the initiative of the Maltese Green Party which eventually brought momentum to the introduction of divorce. As the Maltese Greens (Alternattiva Demokratika) did not have seats in Parliament, their Chairman Michael Briguglio wrote the all members of Parliament requesting that they debate the merits of the introduction of divorce. This proved to be a decisive turning point, with two MPs (one each from the centre-right Nationalist Party and the centre-left Labour Party) publically supporting the introduction of civil divorce.

In the autumn, a conference was organised by the Green European Foundation with support of Ceratonia Foundation (the Green foundation in Malta) which brought together MPs who supported divorce from the two major parties, as well as seasoned pro-divorce campaigns from across Europe. Organising a conference like this proved to be a major success. Not only did it generate a large amount of publicity on the island for the cause, but it resulted in the official Civil Society ‘yes’ campaign being formed the next day involving many of the participants who were at the conference.

Part of the reason that the proponents, including the Green Party, were able to develop a broad coalition of support was that they argued for the adoption of divorce along the models in Ireland and Italy (i.e. still somewhat restrictive and requiring several years of separation). This allowed them to gain support from the more moderate and conservative sections of society who were weary of the notion of ‘easy divorces’.

The Governing Nationalist Party eventually decided to hold a referendum on the issue. This was something the Greens initially objected to, as they wanted Parliament to accept responsibility itself rather than pass it on to the people. Nonetheless, once the referendum was proposed, the Greens organised and identified it as a key opportunity to raise their profile.

The Green Party ended up being the only party officially in favour of divorce, with the Nationalists opposing it and Labour refusing to take a position. While the Green Party had few resources to launch a major campaign, they did ensure that they had a strong message that they stuck with over the campaign and held regular press conferences to rebut misinformation put out by the ‘no’ side. The Greens also ensured that they kept their message clear and simple, so as not to make the issue seem overly complex. The Greens also made effective use of social media, such as Facebook, in the campaign.

Against them was the ‘no’ side, who proved to be well funded and which included the Maltese Catholic Church. The Church is still a powerful institution in Malta, and they played a high profile role on the ‘no’ side. This extended to threatening to refuse Communion to those who voted in favour of the referendum. There was also some strong campaigning by other actors on the ‘no’ side, with some groups claiming that the introduction of divorce would threaten the welfare of children.

However despite this aggressive ‘no’ campaign, the yes side was able to maintain a broad and positive campaign in favour of the referendum. The independent newspapers came out in favour of the referendum, as did the television station associated with the Labour Party. A week before the election there was a campaign rally with all civil society groups in favour, to ensure that there was a broad, progressive alliance behind the campaign.

Undoubtedly, the referendum was passed due to this broad coalition of ‘yes’ advocates. However, it is clear that the Green Party played a strong leadership role in developing the campaign in the first place, and in making a significant contribution to the professionalism and overall success of the campaign. It used the experience to broaden its profile in Malta, and position itself on the side of society that is forward looking and reformists. This has been a major achievement for the Maltese Green Party, and already they are preparing to lead the way in other areas of reform in Malta, such as the electoral system.

This article was written following an interview with Michael Briguglio, Chair of the Maltese Green Party

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  1. Albert Eckert 08/06/2011 at 20:37 | Permalink |

    Congratulations to Alternattiva Demokratika!
    After this victory they certainly would deserve several seats in the Maltese Parliament – but the unjust electoral law denies them any normal chances.