Referendum bill scrapes through in Lower House

Lower House of Parliament

On Thursday the Lower House of Parliament approved a highly controversial bill on holding referenda. Assuming the proposed bill passes through the Senate, it will give Czechs the right to vote on crucial foreign policy and domestic issues. Daniela Lazarova has more:

Giving Czechs the right to a referendum has been an issue of controversy between the two strongest parties on the Czech political scene since 1994. While the governing Social Democrats view the referendum as one of the key instruments of democracy, the centre-right Civic Democratic Party or ODS would prefer for Parliament to approve each and every referendum on a given issue separately.

"We are not against the referendum as such but we do prefer to have a special law concerning concrete referenda such as our membership in the EU. If we take into account the situation in other EU countries - we can see that there are many EU countries such as the Netherlands or Germany without the institution of referendum and I don't think that makes Germany less democratic than Austria or France.

On Thursday Social Democrat deputies applauded as the referendum bill scraped through with exactly the required number of votes needed. According to the bill a referendum can be called by the head of state on crucial domestic and foreign policy issues if he is petitioned by half a million people. This includes issues such as legalising soft drugs, euthanasia, re-introducing the death penalty or deciding the fate of the Temelin nuclear power plant. I asked commentator Vaclav Pinkava how he views the bills approval :

"The principle of having a say during the course of an electoral term makes the voters more concerned about democracy, they have to stay informed and participating for it to work. There are obviously limits to a truly "participative" democracy based on levels of education and even intelligence, let us face it... So there is a problem with a totally direct democracy at work in a logical sense and that is why the parliamentary democracies that we know have come into being. But I think the fundamental point is that there is just as much a danger in holding elections in that they could be abused and that extremists could come to power. After all the communists came to power originally -in this country- in the course of democratic elections. It was one of the peculiarities of Europe at that time that such a high percentage of the electorate voted for the communists. So there is a danger in asking the voters for an opinion and giving them the right to say so but it is also a responsibility of democracy to listen to that voice and I think it is a little bit ridiculous to try and appeal to the voters once in every four years and tell them to shut up the rest of the time."

Although the bill's passage through the Lower house took 7 years, its future is far from certain. It still has to be approved by the Senate and political observers are sceptical that its advocates will be able to drum up enough support to push it through.