Czech government pays lip service to referendum calls

The Czech government on Wednesday approved a bill on automatic referenda, something the public as well as politicians from across the board have been calling for for years. Under the draft legislation, it would take 250,000 signatures and an approval by the country’s Parliament to call a plebiscite. But critics say the bill is so restrictive that it makes it nearly impossible to launch the process, and that it stand very small chances of being approved by the legislature.

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
After having pushed through direct presidential elections earlier this year, the Czech government has tackled another long-standing issue. For the 21st time since the fall of communism, the country’s parliament will debate a bill on automatic referenda which was approved by the cabinet on Wednesday.

Under the draft legislation, 250,000 Czechs would have to sign the motion which would then be voted on by both chambers of Parliament. The bill would also allow the government to call a referendum, again with the lawmakers’ approval.

Under the new bill, referenda could be called on “principal issues of the country’s domestic or foreign policy”. However, security, tax and judicial matters, as well as possible amendments to the Constitution, are exempt from being put to the public vote. The same goes for motions to appoint or fire individuals to and from elected posts. At least 50 percent of all voters would have to take part for the referendum to be binding.

Petr Nečas,  Karolína Peake,  photo: CTK
The government hopes the bill will finally satisfy continuous calls for the introduction of automatic referenda into the Czech constitutional system. Deputy Prime Minster Karolína Peake, who oversaw its preparation, said the coalition was open to future debates about the bill’s details.

“In the past, critics of the bill, both in the lower house and outside of it, have not been able to get a similar procedure approved. We believe the compromise we have now come up with will be acceptable, and we are of course ready to discuss it in the Chamber of Deputies.”

As a constitutional amendment, the bill needs to be approved by two thirds of deputies and senators to enter into force. That is highly unlikely, as the opposition Social Democrats, whose votes would be needed in each chamber, said the bill seems to be designed to thwart plebiscites, rather than facilitate them. But even members of Ms Peake’s own legislative team acknowledge that the terms of the bill would make calling a referendum practically impossible. Jan Kysela is a leading Czech constitutional expert, and a member of the government’s legislative council.

Jan Kysela,  photo: Czech Television
“The likelihood that a meaningful referendum would be called on the basis of this legislation is relatively small. However, if you want to make a notch on your belt for having dealt with it, and at the same time don’t really want a referendum, this is a nice way out of it.”

At a news conference on Wednesday, Prime Minister Petr Nečas was in fact asked whether the real purpose of the bill really was to tick off a point on the government’s agenda or to actually approve it. Mr Nečas said, “Having it approved, and ticking off a point on our agenda. In that order”.