Parties at loggerheads over what should be subject to a national referendum

There is general agreement among the country’s parliamentary parties that the Czech Republic would benefit from a law on national referendums, however the approval of such a bill is severely hampered by fierce debates on what issues should be subject to a popular vote.

Both the country’s ruling parties and the opposition have drafted their own proposals on a bill which would allow the Czech people to decide on matters of national importance. However fear of the institution of national referendum being abused or backfiring is making politicians step cautiously.

The Social Democrats would like to see a national referendum on church restitutions, and on Wednesday tabled a bill on national referendums in the lower house, which had previously been swept off the table. Social Democrat MP Jeroným Tejc:

“A church restitution to the tune of 80 to 100 billion crowns would be the biggest monetary transfer in the country’s modern history. Its impact will be felt by everyone and we feel that for this reason it should be put to a popular vote. However we do not want to initiate a one-off referendum on church restitutions –we want there to be a law which would allow the government, parliament or 200,000 Czechs to initiate a referendum on any matter they consider of crucial significance.”

The ruling parties, who included the approval of a referendum law in their coalition agreement, want to push through their own draft of the bill which would prevent a vote on what they see as moral issues. Civic Democratic Party deputy chairwoman Miroslava Němcová explains:

“The idea of holding a referendum on church restitutions is as if Mr. Tejc’s car was stolen and we all took a vote on whether he should get it back. A referendum on church restitutions is something I am not prepared to support”

On the other hand, the Civic Democrats would like to see euro-adoption subject to a popular vote – despite the fact that the country is bound to adopt the euro under the terms of its EU membership. Miroslava Němcová again:

“When we accepted those terms in a referendum the situation was completely different. The eurozone was a stable alliance where members were bound to meet the Maastricht criteria and observe the stability pact. But now the rules and circumstances have changed significantly.”

Miroslava NěmcováMiroslava Němcová The list of controversial referendum issues would be endless – nuclear power, the death penalty, abortions, euthanasia, to name just some - and the risk of such an institution backfiring considerable. So is the introduction of a referendum bill prudent and suitable in a parliamentary democracy such as that in the Czech Republic? Jan Kysela is a lawyer specializing in constitutional law.

“That is a legal decision for individual states to make. Some are more cautious than others in what they put to a popular vote. And occasionally the institution backfires –as it did when the citizens of California voted on public spending. As a rule, a popular vote should not concern human rights issues, minority rights and international agreements. Calls for some degree of direct decision-making are legitimate in a parliamentary democracy, but I would open that door very cautiously. This should start from grass-roots with more local referendums and regional referendums before it can - reasonably safely - be taken to a higher level.”

A law on national referendum would entail a change to the constitution and therefore require constitutional three-fifth majority support, meaning that any referendum bill approved in Parliament would have to be the result of a compromise which would win across-the-board support.