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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Slovak conservatives failed to cement a ban on gay marriages and child adoptions in a referendum on Saturday because the vote attracted far less than the minimum 50 percent of voters necessary to make it valid, partial results showed.
Votes counted from 87.23 percent of the central European country's voting districts showed turnout of just 21.07 percent, the statistics office said, far from the legal limit and well below expectations.
The EU member does not allow gay marriages or civil unions, nor adoptions by same-sex couples. The grassroots conservative movement that backed the referendum sought to strengthen those bans through a popular vote that would make it more difficult to change the legislation in the future.
The campaign was part of a conservatives' push in Eastern European countries, including Hungary and Croatia, against what they see as overly liberal policies spreading eastwards in the two decades since the European Union expanded to include former Communist states.
Around 90 percent of those who took part in the vote said 'yes' to the referendum's three questions: whether marriage can only be a union of a man and a woman, whether same-sex couples should be banned from adoptions, and whether children can skip classes involving education on sex and euthanasia.
Liberal elites, gay rights activists and part of the media advised voters to defeat the referendum by not taking part, a strategy that worked.
The low turnout pleased the country's gay community.
"I am happy for the result. The referendum was about limiting the rights of a minority by the majority, so it should not have taken place at all," activist Hana Fabry said on TA3 television.
The group behind the referendum, Aliancia pre rodinu (Alliance for the Family), argued that the traditional family is under threat and points to an increasing number of countries, including neighboring Austria and the Czech Republic, that allow various forms of same-sex unions, or child adoption by gay couples.
It put a brave face on the result, saying holding the referendum was a success in itself.
"The most important thing is that the family became the topic of the day and perhaps the topic of the year," the alliance's Anna Veresova told a television broadcast.
The referendum was backed by the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in the country of 5.4 million people.
Slovakia is one of the most religious countries in Europe. But statistics show that the percentage of children born out of wedlock is only slightly lower than in neighboring Czech Republic, which is one of the least devout nations in Europe, and the number of births per woman is even lower.
Final referendum results are expected on Sunday.
Reporting by Jan Lopatka; Editing by Dan Grebler