The people of Malta started voting on Saturday in a referendum on whether or not to introduce divorce.
The Mediterranean island of 400 000 people is the only country in Europe that does not allow the practice.
A member of the ruling centre-right Nationalist Party, Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando, shocked his own party in July last year when he presented a Bill in Parliament for the introduction of a conservative form of divorce.
The proposal is based on the Irish model, where couples have to be separated for four years before being eligible.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, who is strongly against divorce but lacks room for manoeuvre because his government only has a one-seat majority in Parliament, eventually decided that since no mention of divorce was made before the last election, the people’s mood must be judged in a referendum.
Opposition leader Joseph Muscat says he is strongly in favour of divorce, even if he is “the last man standing”. Some of his own party, however, are against.
“The divorce referendum is a vote for modernity and an opportunity for those whose marriage has broken down to be able to start afresh,” Muscat said on Thursday, the last day of campaigning.
For Gonzi, however, divorce offers “no solutions”.
“We have to help people whose marriage has broken down, but we also have to help couples prepare better for marriage so that marriages do not break down and the value of an indissoluble marriage is bequeathed to the young,” Gonzi said.
The vote is seen as a test of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where 72% of people still say they go to Mass on Sundays. Nearly all marriages between Maltese are held at the altar.
Although marriage breakdowns, cohabitation and children born out of wedlock have risen sharply, couples at present may only legally separate, without having the right to remarry.
Marriage annulments are granted very rarely by a church tribunal in a process which lasts several years. An annulment is a declaration that the marriage ‘never existed’ — usually because one of the partners had some impediment that the other did not know about.
Only divorce granted abroad is recognised in Malta.
Opinion polls suggest the result could go either way, with 40% of the electorate still undecided.
The political parties kept out of direct campaigning in the referendum, mindful that their supporters are split over the issue. They have told their followers to vote according to their conscience. The result will be known on Sunday afternoon. — Reuters