Almost three-quarters of the electorate yesterday voted on whether divorce should be introduced in Malta, at the culmination of a bitter referendum campaign which bore all the hallmarks of a hard-fought general election.
Figures released by the Electoral Commission late last night showed turnout to be well below the norm for general elections, but higher than local council elections.
The highest turnout (75 per cent) was in the 11th district (which includes Attard, Balzan and Mosta) while the lowest (69 per cent) was in the 12th district (which includes Naxxar, St Paul’s Bay and Mellieħa).
More than 20,700 voting documents – around six per cent in total – remained uncollected before yesterday’s poll.
A result is expected around noon today, though the outcome could be delayed if, as polls predicted, the result is too close to call.
However, agents who spoke to The Sunday Times last night said a low turnout among younger voters was noted throughout the day, while the elderly and the religious community appeared to be out in numbers, thus potentially giving the ‘no’ vote the upper hand.
Despite the imposed ban on voter influence on polling day, there were several reports yesterday of pressure on voters, especially the elderly and vulnerable, to give the thumbs down to divorce. On the other hand, pro-divorce campaigners made their voice and experiences heard, especially on Facebook and Twitter.
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?”
People did not generally have to wait long to cast their vote although some of those who had to cross over to Gozo lamented they had to queue for up to two hours. Sample ballot papers with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ crossed on them were seen on the ground around some voting centres.
In a day littered with complaints of foul play – which characterised the campaign – the Curia last night urged the Electoral Commission to intervene at once after a local news portal decided to disregard a 10 p.m. embargo on a letter issued by the Church in which the bishops said they were sorry if anyone was upset by its words or deeds during the campaign (see page 5).
Minutes later, the pro-divorce movement wrote to the Electoral Commission requesting that polling stations remain open for a further hour in light of what it considered to be “an admission of improper spiritual pressure” by the archdiocese on voters. The request was turned down.
In another incident, a supervisor at a Mellieħa home for the elderly was reported to have asked residents, “Do you want to get divorced?” before taking them to the polling booths.
Divorce Bill promoters Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Labour MP Evarist Bartolo, who went on site, were later filmed warning an Electoral Commission representative stationed at the home not to allow anyone to be “terrorised”.
Dr Pullicino Orlando told The Sunday Times the commission representative admitted what the supervisor had done, but said she was stopped.
The police are said to be looking into the incident, which, according to relatives of people living in the home, was not the first of its kind during the campaign.
Speaking a few minutes after casting his vote with his wife Michelle, Labour leader Joseph Muscat said he would call on the authorities to investigate the claims in connection with the state-owned home.
Labour exponents also criticised the programming schedule of the Nationalist Party’s TV station Net, which interviewed people talking about family unity. On the other hand, Net TV ran a story criticising a TV presenter from One TV who published a photo of his ‘yes’ vote on his Facebook profile, saying it breached the electoral law.
The Broadcasting Authority is still investigating a programme on Campus FM on Friday morning during which Fr Joe Inguanez criticised another priest, Fr Mark Montebello, for lamenting the Church’s anti-divorce campaigning.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, his wife Kate and their son Paul went to vote at the Marsascala primary school at around 10.30 a.m.
After casting his vote, Dr Gonzi said: “We are not electing a government but expressing an opinion on the future of our family. We had a firm but positive discussion in the country that has enabled us to reach a decision.
“The people’s verdict will have to be respected.”
The referendum was triggered by Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando who shocked his own party last July by putting forward a divorce Bill. If there is a yes vote, it will go before Parliament.
Reporting by Christian Peregin, Herman Grech, Kurt Sansone and Juan Ameen