ZAGREB - Catholic and conservative Croatia voted to ban same-sex marriage by a strong majority as activists warned that the poll was a step back for the EU's newest member.
At a referendum on Sunday, almost 66 per cent of voters said "yes" to amending the constitution limiting the definition of marriage as a "union between a woman and a man".
Currently, Croatia's constitution does not define marriage.
"This is very dangerous move through which a democratic institution was actually abused for a collapse of democracy," prominent human rights activist Zoran Pusic told AFP.
"This amendment is against the spirit of the constitution which should protect and secure equality, freedom and justice."
Pusic added that the vote targeted a minority group whose rights do not endanger the rights of others and such trends are "extremely dangerous for a society".
The referendum was held after a Church-backed group in May collected almost 700,000 signatures seeking a nationwide vote on the definition of marriage.
Croatia's conservatives feared that after the centre-left government announced a bill enabling gay couples to register as "life partners", same-sex marriage would be next.
Although passions ran high in Croatia ahead of the vote, with the Church-backed "yes" camp citing the defence of traditional family values and their opponents accusing them of discrimination against gays, the turnout was rather low.
Only slightly more than one-third of the 3.8 million eligible voters cast ballots, among the lowest turnouts ever in Croatia's elections.
Under Croatian law, a referendum does not require a majority voter turnout to be valid, which means that a small number of ballots can decide on issues.
"Only 25 per cent of citizens judged what is marriage!" read front-page headline of the influential Jutarnji List daily on Monday.
The paper urged the government to "change referendum rules as soon as possible and secure that issues like human rights cannot be decided on a referendum".
Political analysts estimated that a low turnout showed that despite a heated public debate, the majority of Croatians are concentrating on economic issues in a country hit by a long-lasting recession.
"Citizens want to live better and ... this seemed to them as squabbling which moved political elites away from what they see as fundamental problems," political scientist Zoran Kurelic estimated.