The centre-left majority in Croatia's parliament is working on tightening up the referendum law in order to make such exercises harder to hold. The principal changes mean that in future, those seeking a referendum will have to present a clearer argument in pushing for one.
Signatures will have to be collected by public bodies, not on the streets, where the government claims people can be manipulated. The process of collecting signatures is to be extended from two weeks to 30 or even 60 days to make it easier to count the signatures and make the process more transparent.
Another amendment will concern the financing referendum campaigns, so that the government knows who is supporting these initiatives and how much money is being spent. The proposed changes follow the success of socially conservative groups in forcing a referendum on outlawing gay marriage last year.
An umbrella group, called “In the Name of the Family”, supported by some right-wing parties and the Catholic Church, collected 750,000 signatures in May 2013, demanding a constitutional definition of marriage as a “union of man and woman”.
The referendum was duly held in December 2013, and resulted in 65.87 per cent of voters on a turnout of 37 per cent opting for an exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage. Another initiative was then started by a group of war veterans, called the Committee for the Defence of Croatian Vukovar. This group collected 680,000 signatures in November and December 2013 demanding a referendum on curbing ethnic minority rights.
Currently, ethnic minorities can access certain rights, including the right to have signs displayed in their language and script, if they make up at least a third of the local population. Supporters of the referendum wanted this quota changed to only grant language rights if minorities make up at least half of the local population. This would have exempted the eastern border town of Vukovar, where Serbs make up just over a third of local residents, and where war veterans have staged angry protests against the introduction of Serb Cyrillic script.
After parliament passed the matter to the Constitional Court, the court struck down the planned referendum last week, deeming the proposed question unconstitutional. Government officials claim they are battling a “referendum flood” that is aimed at human rights and is turning into a tool of right-wing political options.
One of the headaches for the government is the fact that referendums can take place in Croatia, and be deemed a success, even if less than 50 per cent of the electorate take part. This is the result of constitutional changes in 2010, which failed to include an obligatory turnout of 50 per cent of all voters, because the authorities feared that a referendum on joining the EU might not pass.
In practice, this has meant that groups with relatively low levels of support can change the constitution if they mobilise their supporters with sufficient energy. While the proposed changes go now to public consultation, the draft changes are not likely to enter parliament before December and will not be passed sooner than January 2015.
Constitutional law professor Sanja Baric praised the government's initiative but said the new time frame for collecting signatures - from 30 to 60 days - are still too short. Baric noted that referendums in Switzerland take up to a year, allowing for a much longer “cooling off” period.
On the other hand, “In the Name of the Family”, the group that lobbied for the anti-gay marriage referendum in December 2013, said the proposed changes were anti-democratic. Spokesperson Jelena Gazivoda told BIRN that the government wanted to "prevent citizens from giving their opinions and to restrict the democratic space, thus practically disabling the direct pleas of citizens".
Article by Sven Milekic, BIRN
This article was originally published on BalkanInsight.com, a publication of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). The views expressed in this article do not represent those of Democracy International.