Thursday, 15 November 2018

HN: Debated referendum might endanger Czech democracy

3 November 2017

Prague, Nov 2 (CTK) - A general referendum bill promoted by new Czech parties such as ANO and Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) is a way for them to erode democracy and the country's Euro-Atlantic links, which democratic parties should try hard to prevent, Jan Stetka says in Hospodarske noviny (HN) on Thursday.

The Czech constitution, valid since 1993, explicitly supposes the introduction of a general referendum as an instrument of direct democracy, he admits.

"A constitutional law can decide when the people should perform the state power directly," he writes, citing the constitution's Article 2, Para 2.

No law on general referendum has been passed as yet, however. In the 1990s, its passing was blocked by the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which considered direct democracy dangerous for the stability of the then newly independent Czech Republic and its economic transformation, Stetka writes.

In 2001, a general referendum bill was passed by the Chamber of Deputies but it was vetoed by the Senate, the meanwhile established upper house of parliament, Stetka writes.

Further proposals, submitted by the government or lawmakers, were also unsuccessful, except for the law on a one-off referendum on Czech accession to the EU, passed in 2002, he says.

As a result, some may consider the passing of a general referendum bill "a debt" politicians owe to the constitution. That is why some new parties, such as ANO, the SPD or the extra-parliamentary Referendum movement have taken up the referendum issue not as a way to extend democracy but a means to criticise the hitherto establishment and even to lead the Czech Republic out of the EU and NATO, a goal which the Communist Party (KSCM) supports as well, Stetka writes.

ANO, the SPD and the KSCM together command 115 votes in he 200-seat lower house, while 120 votes are required for a constitutional bill, such as a referendum bill, to make it through.

It is dangerous that the referendum issue has become the above parties' common denominator in the ongoing negotiations on the formation of a new government of Andrej Babis, whose ANO won the October 20-21 general election, he writes.

None of them has elaborated on what the general referendum should be like, whether it should be initiated by the government or parliament, how many people's signatures should be needed to call it, whether it should have an advisory or binding character and whether questions concerning taxes, human rights and security commitments would be excluded from referendums as is the case in civilised countries, Stetka writes.

By their silence in this respect, leaders of the pro-referendum parties show they understand it as a means to achieve their own goals rather than a democratic instrument, Stetka writes.

Maybe ANO, the SPD and the KSCM have left the details of a seemingly secondary importance aside for everybody to keep their own idea of a referendum and support the arising programme consensus. The more dangerous the situation is, however. Once a government were established and won the Chamber of Deputies' confidence, it would definitely adjust the referendum parameters to meet its own interests, Stetka writes.

He refers to the "dark" history of referendums, including their use by the Nazis to strengthen their regime and aggressive policy, which also caused the Czech scene's reluctant approach to the issue in the past two decades.

Even at present, referendums serve disputable purposes, he writes, mentioning Alexandr Lukashenko's use of a referendum to extend his mandate as Belarussian president and the referendum by which Russia legalised its annexation of Crimea.

The intimidated inhabitants of the regions involved usually vote in accordance with the rulers' wish, and no rigging of votes is even necessary, he writes.

Fortunately, the Senate, the upper house of parliament, is a safeguard against referendum experiments in the Czech Republic. ANO and the parties kowtowing to it within the ongoing government forming talks command a negligible minority of votes in the Senate, and a general referendum bill probably would not make it through the upper house now, Stetka writes.

However, the situation may change after the Senate elections in 2018 or 2020, in each of which one third of the upper house seats will be contested, Stetka writes.

Everything depends on the atmosphere in the country. Babis, whose ANO was part of the previous government and he himself finance minister, has shown his skill to change people's moods. He can listen to these moods and comply with them. In case people become increasingly opposed to the EU, a Czech referendum confronting Brussels is not an unrealistic prospect, Stetka writes.

A referendum is a slot potentially enabling to erode post-1989 democracy in the country and its links to the Euro-Atlantic civilisation. It is the time for democratic parties to plug the slot at least by refusing to assist in any constitutional changes promoted by ANO and its kowtowers, including the effort to implement the delayed Article 2, Para 2 of the Czech constitution, Stetka adds.

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