On 21 January 2023, for the 9th time since the country’s independence in 1993, citizens were called to vote in a national referendum. This episode is the latest development in the political rift shacking the country.
Everything started with a vote of non-confidence against Eduard Heger (prime minister since 2021) at the end of 2022. As he failed to gather a new coalition, he became the head of a minority government. In such a case, the procedure is clear: He would either need to form a new coalition (an option rejected by the oppositions), or he would need to resign. Instead, while Zuzana Caputova, president of the Slovak Republic was supposed to name a new government to lead the country, the oppositions called for an early election. Such a possibility is covered by the constitution, but it requires the vote of two-thirds of the MPs. As the requirement was not reached, the oppositions decided to use a citizens’ initiative tool to call for early elections, through a constitutional reform submitted to a vote of the citizens.
Indeed, the Slovak Constitution inscribes the use of direct democracy with the referendum as its medium: “State power is derived from citizens, who execute it through their elected representatives or directly”. And for the 9th time since its independence, we had the opportunity to observe the mechanism in action a few weeks ago. The requirements for a referendum are quite explicit. First, 350 000 signatures must be collected (8% of the eligible vote). Furthermore, not only more than 50% must vote YES for the proposal to be accepted, but more than 50% of the eligible voters must participate.
During almost three decades, citizens were asked multiple questions from a wide range of fields, including political reforms, and same-sex marriage - but only one, the referendum on the European Union membership, was successful and received 98.74% approval from the citizens. On 21 January 2023, the participation of 27.25%, well below the 50%, did not allow the referendum to be successful. As political disputes are stronger than ever, the country seems to be embedded in a history of failed referendums.
While the tool of direct democracy aims to involve citizens in political affairs and to increase the level of citizens' awareness, this tool seems now to be used in Slovakia to fuel conflict while it was initially supposed to solve them. Indeed, the case of Slovakia allows us to see how, in a few decades, this citizens` tool became a political party tool. Although collecting 350 000 signatures from citizens is reachable, in the end, the turn-out to the ballot box is always low. While referendums are an important feature of Slovakian political life, they are used to deal with political disagreements.
Miroslav Nemčok and Peter Spáč from Masaryk University isolated two main motivations in the recent history of the Slovak referendum, ‘One is the increase in parties electoral share by mobilising their supporters via the referendum idea, the second is represented by an effort to harm their political opponents"
Indicators of public opinion, fuel for parliamentary debate, parties gain, the instrument of referendum has become as said Elżbieta Kużelewska, a polish politolog 'a caricature of the form of direct democracy’. From more political participation, it has been transformed, except it is not in favor of more participation from the citizens.
In the end, the case of Slovakia illustrates how the need for direct democracy is stronger than ever. In a time of political disputes making specialists fear for democracy in Slovakia - as early elections in the country always brought autocratic parties into power -, direct democracy, when used by the citizens, can be seen as a solution. Making people wonder about that instrument, especially questioning the absence of a citizen’s legislative initiatives. Direct Democracy tools have proven their efficiency when used in the right ways, Switzerland is one of the reflections. Therefore, what we can only work for is more direct democracy, and more autonomy for the citizens in the use of tools crafted for them.
Further readings on the topic:
- Miroslav Nemčok, Peter Spáč, Referendum as a Party Tool: the Case of Slovakia,, Masaryk University, 2019 https://tuhat.helsinki.fi/ws/files/130554424/OA_nemcok_spac_referendum_as_a_party_tool.pdf
- Kopeček, L., & Belko, M. (2003). Referendum in theory and practice: the history of the Slovak referendums and their consequences. Central European Political Studies Review, 5(2-3).