“Even though the result is not what I wished for, now it is our duty to see that the will of the majority is respected,” said Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi in a speech on Sunday, acknowledging the outcome of the May 28 referendum.
Labor Party leader Joseph Muscat praised the result as “the birth of a new Malta.”
Initial counts showed the pro-divorce side coming out ahead by a narrow margin, winning between 52 and 54 percent of the vote. Nearly three-quarters of all eligible voters participated in the referendum.
The divorce bill will now go before Parliament for a final decision.
Prime Minister Gonzi's Nationalist Party has a small majority in the legislature. However, some members of the party, who were instrumental in bringing the divorce question before the public, now seem poised to give their approval and turn the bill into law.
Catholics account for the vast majority – up to 98 percent – of Malta’s 400,000 people. For decades the island has remained one of the few countries in the world that did not permit divorce, although it did allow for the annulment of illegitimate marriages.
Malta’s Catholic bishops made their opposition to divorce clear in the run-up to the referendum, particularly in their May 21 pastoral letter.
“A choice in favor of permanent marriage is an act of faith in the family, built upon a bond of love which cannot be severed,” they wrote.
“Whereas a choice in favor of divorce leads to the further destruction of marriage and the family and, as a consequence, the destruction of values and the quality of life.”
Citizens of the island of Malta have voted to legalize divorce, making a choice that the country's Catholic bishops have warned will lead to family breakdown and a loss of religious identity.