President Zeman backs referendum law in address to parliament

Miloš Zeman, photo: ČTK

President Miloš Zeman addressed the Czech parliament on Friday expressing support for a government-backed proposal to enable the public to petition for nationwide referenda on a variety of issues. MPs from the TOP 09 party, however, staged a walk-out in protest at both the proposed law and the president’s overall conduct.

Miloš Zeman,  photo: ČTK
“We have gathered here today to discuss one possible law, which will at least partially bring back the political prestige of our political leaders by helping to overcome a barrier of alienation between themselves and citizens. And to help bring citizens closer in to the decision-making process.”

Such was the argument made by President Miloš Zeman to deputies of the lower house of the Czech parliament on Friday morning. The president has long been a supporter of a government-backed initiative to enable the public to petition for referenda via the collection of a large number of signatures.

Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Czech Radio - Radio Prague
Advocates of the law say it will help the public have a say in key issues. Critics, however, argue that such direct democracy effectively usurps the parliamentary system of the country. Zeman addressed these arguments in his address:

“I do not at all believe that direct democracy is a lower form of the expression of the will of citizens than representative democracy. I view representative and direct democracies as complementary, not substitutional – and something which ends up strengthening democracy overall.”

The measures will require a constitutional majority to pass, meaning three-fifths in both the lower house and Senate. This means the government will have to reach across the aisle in order to gain the support of opposition parties. Right now, both TOP 09 and the Civic Democrats oppose the measures, while the communists are in favour.

Illustrative photo: Kristýna Maková,  Czech Radio - Radio Prague
The current proposals, submitted to parliament by the government last July, would require at least 250,000 signatures from registered Czech voters. The president would then have the authority to call for a referendum. A majority of voters would subsequently need to vote in favour of a proposal for it to pass, with a minimum voter turnout rate of 25 percent. A number of key issues would not be subject to such plebiscites, for example budgets, taxes, fundamental rights, or international relations. This would leave issues such as marijuana legalization and smoking in restaurants potentially subject to a public vote.

Only once in the Czech Republic’s history have citizens partaken in a national referendum – in 2003, when a special law had to be enacted enabling a plebiscite on European Union entry. Ultimately, more than 77 percent of more than 8 million voters voted in favour of joining. The current plans would not enable a vote on the Czech Republic’s future in the European Union.