By Luiza Ilie
BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Many Romanians appeared to boycott a vote on Sunday on whether to enshrine in the constitution that marriage must only be between a man and a woman, as turnout remained low on the second day of a referendum.
The vote is seen as a proxy for the popularity of the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD) and has seen campaigners direct slurs at LGBT people.
The conservative European Union member already bars marriage and civil partnerships for same sex couples.
The referendum was brought about by a civil society group, called the Coalition for the Family, which raised 3 million signatures to trigger the vote to ensure gay couples never win the right to marry in the future.
The Coalition received backing from the Orthodox Church and other religions as well as all but one parliamentary party, which endorsed the referendum.
By 1000 GMT on Sunday, eight hours before polls close, voter turnout stood at just under 12 percent. The vote needs a turnout rate of 30 percent, or more than 5 million people, to be valid by the time the polls close at 1800 GMT.
Ahead of the referendum, dozens of European Parliament members sent an open letter to Romania's prime minister telling her the referendum was a mistake that would promote hate speech against LGBT community.
Dozens of human rights groups have also warned that approval would embolden further attempts to chip away at the rights of minority groups and push Romania onto a populist, authoritarian track.
They have encouraged people to boycott the ballot, with several companies and popular musicians and artists following. A library chain even offered a book discount over the weekend for those who wanted to stay in and read rather than vote.
In villages across the country, people were quoted as saying they had better things to do, such as canning and making wine.
"The PSD staked everything on the referendum, by associating with it and trying to capitalise on it," said Sergiu Miscoiu, a political science professor at Babes-Bolyai University.
"Regardless of whether it passes narrowly or if it doesn’t pass, what remains is the fact that many citizens have associated the initiative with the PSD and that is why they boycotted it. Either way, it is a major sanction against the government."
PSD leader Liviu Dragnea, whose appeal against a criminal conviction in an abuse of office case is due to start on Monday, was undeterred after he voted on Saturday.
"I voted for what millions of Romanians are asking, for what I believe defines us as a society and a nation," he told reporters.
"We all know that for years we’ve been told others know what is best for us better than we do. I believe it is time we decide what kind of society and country we want to have and how we want to live in our country," Dragnea said.
Two members of the election committee in his voting station refused to shake his hand.
A poll released on Friday by CURS estimated turnout would be 34 percent - above the needed 30 percent threshold - with 90 percent of those who would turn out to the polls in favour.
Romania decriminalised homosexuality in 2001, decades after neighbouring countries. It ranks 25th out of 28 EU states based on legislation, hate speech and discrimination against LGBT people, an annual study by ILGA-Europe, an umbrella organisation advocating equality, showed.
(Editing by Susan Fenton)