As a referendum on a snap election brews, Slovaks are reminded of their dismal track record in voting in plebiscites. Yet this time could be different.

Six years after it last appeared in the public’s mind, “referendum” is a buzzword again in Slovakia. As a nearly 600,000-signature petition calling for a plebiscite on a snap election is wired from the presidential office of Zuzana Caputova to the Constitutional Court, the ultimate adjudicator of the proposed vote’s fate, more and more people (aside from legal theorists) are beginning to focus their attention on a people’s ballot in the making

Though referenda are a rare and rather endangered species in Slovakia, with only one valid vote out of a total of eight in the country’s near 30-year long history, this time the prospect of an unlikely upset – engineered by the political opposition – is in the air.

“This referendum, like several others before it, is a form of political campaign and anti-government mobilisation. But with regards to its strong signature collection effort and the level of discontent with the current government, it could be precisely this plebiscite that ends up being very successful,” political scientist Juraj Marusiak of the Slovak Academy of Sciences tells BIRN.

Supporters of the latest referendum will be looking to improve Slovakia’s plebiscite track record to two successful votes out of nine. The odds, however, are stacked against them.

Doomed to fail
When, earlier this year, amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic, a designated commission announced the launch of a signature-collection campaign to support a petition on a snap election, hardly anyone paid attention.

“Slovakia needs a competent and reliable government that will lead the country out of crisis. In a situation where the ruling coalition is refusing to take responsibility for its failures, early parliamentary elections are the only solution,” read a statement on the commission’s website.

The country has seen this before. Of the previous seven failed referenda, two – in 2000 and 2004 – aimed to prompt a snap vote. The plebiscites failed miserably. With respective turnouts of 20 per cent and 36 per cent, they fell well below the 50 per cent threshold that makes a referendum valid under Slovak law.

The single occasion when Slovaks made use of a referendum to decide upon a major societal question was the 2003 vote on the country’s accession to the EU. The plebiscite’s success was decided by a hair, as only 52 per cent of voters showed up at the polls. Out of those who turned up, more than 92 per cent were in favour of Slovakia joining the EU.

The reason why referenda in Slovakia are almost doomed to failure could lie in the very questions they ask, Marusiak thinks. “Many voters might not have considered them relevant. Most referenda were forms of political campaigns run by activists and political parties,” the expert says.

A plebiscite that seeks to trim the government’s term is controversial for that part of the electorate that is happy with the ruling coalition and would therefore reject it by simply not showing up – “or voting with their feet,” as Tomas Koziak, rector at the Academia Rerum Civilium, puts it. “Only people who are unhappy with the election result would take part in such referendum,” he tells BIRN.

A low turnout is also seen as the result of voting fatigue among the electorate. “There are few years when there are no elections in Slovakia: parliamentary, presidential, communal, regional and EU elections are all regularly held,” Marusiak explains. “Some of them have extremely low turnouts. Add to that a referendum and it really becomes tiring.”

Since 2006, only one vote in the country managed to climb over the 65 per cent turnout level. This shows that a large chunk of society shuns any kind of elections on a regular basis, Koziak adds. “Whether it’s a general election or a referendum, these people are not interested in participating on decisions about public affairs.”

Push from the left
Although appearing “apolitical” on the surface, the petition commission behind this referendum push is another political construct. It has been supported by trade unionists and the two biggest social democratic parties that loathe the ruling centre-right coalition, at the time headed by Igor Matovic but who has since been replaced by Eduard Heger in the wake of a month-long coalition crisis.

Former prime minister Robert Fico, from the opposition SMER-SD party, promised to pay for supporting signatures filed by post and even shared a video on social media that showed him gluing envelopes containing signature sheets. On social media platforms, new groups named “Snap vote referendum 2021 – Matovic’s end” popped up at the behest of SMER’s youth affiliate, the Young Social Democrats.

But the real driving force behind the petition was Peter Pellegrini, another former prime minister whose Hlas-SD party nominated members of the petition commission. Buoyed by his surge in the polls, Pellegrini did not shy away from publicly toying with the idea of a referendum on an early ballot several months before the petition was even launched.

Fast-forward to May and the left’s referendum push is firmly in the open. More than 585,000 signatures, well above the required minimum of 350,000, were delivered to President Caputova who, having verified the validity of the vast majority of signatures, refused to give her legally mandated go-ahead to the referendum and instead asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the plebiscite’s unclear constitutionality.

“I greatly respect the right to petition and I consider my constitutional duty to ensure that the referendum is not marred by doubt and that its result is bullet-proof,” Caputova said in a statement.

It’s not unprecedented for a Slovak president to ask the courts to rule on the legality of a proposed plebiscite’s question. Former president Andrej Kiska did so with the last referendum in 2015 that sought to ban same-sex marriage and adoptions by homosexual couples. In the end, the Constitutional Court crossed out one question as it deemed it unconstitutional. The plebiscite came to nothing, as turnout was only 21 per cent.

But given that Slovakia has already held two referenda on snap elections in the past, questioning the current plebiscite’s constitutionality, which could lead to its complete blocking, is a rather “non-standard process,” Marusiak explains.

Then-president Rudolf Schuster did not heed the advice of legal experts, who maintained that the constitutionality of the previous referenda on snap elections should have been judicially considered. “This question should have been resolved long ago. It’s important for the Constitutional Court to clarify what can be asked in a referendum, and whether it can be used to call for a snap election,” Koziak contends.

Not worth the paper
The proposed vote has enough of a muddled legal status that a battle of words has been raging between prominent constitutional lawyers for the last few weeks. Those daring to criticise its legality have drawn the ire of former prime minister Fico, who poured scorn on dissenting lawyers. Fico’s attacks notwithstanding, there are experts who claim the referendum’s phrasing could easily make it void.

“This plebiscite is not worth the paper the petition sheets will have been printed on,” constitutional lawyer Peter Kresak told the Dennik N daily before the petition’s launch.

Kresak thinks that the required 50 per cent turnout threshold would not be met “with probability bordering on certainty”. As things stand, more than 2.2 million Slovaks would need to show up on the day. During the last parliamentary election, 2.88 million people voted in the highest turnout since 2002. Before that, only 2.17 million cast their ballot in the first round of the last presidential election; the second round saw a turnout below 2 million.

And the plebiscite in question adds another layer of complexity – of the 47 Council of Europe member states, only Latvia and Liechtenstein explicitly allow a referendum to instigate a snap vote. Lawyers also say that this plebiscite, as envisaged by the opposition, would stop short of being valid even in referendum-ridden Switzerland, constitutional lawyer Vincent Bujnak told the SME daily.

Roughly 45 per cent of voters favour a snap poll, with 47 per cent opposed and the rest undecided, latest data by Teneo show. But with close to 40 per cent of respondents convinced that Slovakia’s month-old government’s life span will be cut short in a few months, the prospect of an early vote looms ever larger.

“Another scandal within the four-party coalition government, and active campaigning by the opposition, still could alter the outlook,” Teneo analyst Andrius Tursa says.

But even if the referendum clears all thresholds and becomes an unlikely success story, parliament would still have to approve its result and call a snap election with an in-house vote. Several coalition politicians declined to confirm whether they would adhere to the plebiscite’s verdict, as the spectre of a snap election grows over their diminishing approval ratings.

“If parliament jeopardised the referendum by not respecting its result in case of a high turnout, it would trigger a major political crisis that would question the legitimacy of current political elites,” Marusiak warns.

A refusal to recognise the plebiscite’s outcome would likely lead to further work for the Constitutional Court that could face a storm of legal challenges from disgruntled voters and politicians, Koziak ventures. “It would also be a very risky move with regards to the parties’ political future. Those not accepting the result could easily lose a heavy proportion of their voters in the next general election,” he adds.

Perhaps even more pressing is the question of whether a government that is losing support at such a rapid pace is even able to stick together until the day of the possible referendum. “Scepticism is rife across the political spectrum and is strong even within the ruling coalition. It’s clear that some parties are already banking on the possibility of early elections, though they do not say it openly,” Marusiak says.

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