EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - More than half of Maltese voters on Saturday (28 May) cast their ballot in favour of legalising divorce on the small Mediterranean island, the only EU member state it is banned.
Despite having campaigned against making divorce legal, Conservative Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi pledged to respect the result of the referendum and to change the law accordingly.
"This is not the result that I wished for, but the will of the people has to be respected and parliament should enact a law for the introduction of divorce," Gonzi told media on Sunday.
Labour opposition leader Joseph Muscat said the outcome of the referendum marked "the birth of a new Malta."
Preliminary results showed the pro-divorce camp winning with a majority of 52 to 54 percent of the vote. Turnout was 72 percent, high for EU standards, but low for Maltese ones, where more than 90 percent of voters usually show up to the polls.
Malta - a strong Catholic outpost in the Mediterranean - is the only EU state and one of the few countries in the world not to have legalised divorce so far. Only the Philippines and the Vatican itself still have a ban.
Some 95 percent of the 400,000 inhabitants on the island are Catholic . The church played a significant role in the No campaign, arguing that the measure would encourage family breakups and make children suffer.
A letter sent out by the country's bishops was read in churches the week prior to the vote, calling on believers to choose "permanent marriage" as "an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed."
Legal separation is allowed in Malta, but remarrying is virtually impossible. Divorces pronounced in another country are however recognised as valid in Malta. The country's laws also ban abortion.