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Vladimír Špidla: "I do not think, that our political development would lead to referendum democracy"

Štěpán Kotrba and Vladimír Rott

Vladimír Špidla, Czech Prime Minister (2002–04), in an exclusive interview
by Štěpán Kotrba (of Britské listy, a Czech internet daily) and Vladimír Rott (questions sent by e-mail, for D-Europe / NDDIE.org, a network of European groups, movements for more democracy, and more direct democracy, in Europe)
Translated from Czech by Vladimír Rott


[VR]: The last autumn's declaration of Czech Premier Vladimír Špidla, about preparatory steps toward referendums, found quite an interest in European circles – from citizens' movements to politicians – working towards "more democracy" in all European countries. In contrast to the "Czech special" one-time referendum bill and law, Mr Špidla's proposal would be – according to their understanding – one of the very first steps towards a new European democracy of the 21st century. According to some foreign media (1), (2) – with reports based upon Czech sources – this declaration should be binding for the Czech government.
[ŠK]: Vladimír Špidla recently repeated for the media (3), in relation to referendum about EU Constitution, that the government will pursue a bill on general referendums. The Civic Democrats (ODS [a party founded by Mr Klaus, modelled after UK Tories, and now lead by Mr Topolánek]) qualified such a position as "blackmail", as they would like to realize a one-time referendum regarding the EU Constitution only [which they oppose, same as the Communists do]. Britské listy regard the changing the Czech constitutional institutes as basic to the development of democracy, and so asked the Premier for an interview about this topic.


[ŠK]: The Parliamentarian Assembly of the Council of Europe seriously debated the question of enhancing citizens' participation in the functioning of the state and of the state's institutions, and in 1997 adopted resolutions nos. 1121 and 1129 about the instruments of citizens' participation in representative democracy, which includes in some detail the referendum's question. Considering the pros and contras, the Parliamentarian Assembly recommends to use referendum in a deliberated manner, as it is the moment of citizens' participation, something increasing citizens' self-confidence, and citizens' relation to the state.
[VR]: Mr Premier, should you be serious about the referendum question and should you regard it in the mentioned European spirit, what are the further steps of the Czech government?

[VŠ]: The next steps of the government are simple, the government will submit a bill about referendum to the House and to the Senate, and there will be a discussion about this law, and we will try to push it through.

[VR]: Should the citizens change their preferences during coming elections [this year], and so the government's composition, would this your declaration be binding for the new government as well?

[VŠ]: It is not binding for the next government, it is not binding for anyone at all. Only laws are permanent. [VR: ?]

[VR]: However, should your declaration not be binding and not a will of constitutional majority [of the parliament], as some observers in Czechia insist, how then are the chances for introducing referendums in Czechia? Are referendums a demand of Czech society?

[VŠ]: It is evident that my declaration is not the will of constitutional majority, it might be, at best, the will of the governing coalition [remark VR: which it is not, or, at best, by far not yet (3)], which does not posses this [necessary] constitutional majority. Therefore, it will be necessary to gain support throughout the whole political spectrum.

[ŠK]: Part of the constitutional order of the Czech republic is also the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Basic Freedoms, which in its Art. 21, Par. 1 embeds the citizens' right to participate in the administration of public affairs directly or by free election of their representatives. In-spite of this, Czech citizens could not have decided about Czech republic joining NATO. Will the bill in preparation forbid "back voting", to come back to issues already accepted by the parliament?

[VŠ]: No, no referendum can enable "back voting" about any issues already discussed by the parliament.

[VR]: What are, in your opinion, the chances to implement a more contemporary approach to politics in Czechia - introducing [legal] institutes of direct, participatory, democracy - than the present purely parliamentarian, representative democracy? [ŠK]: Your party, Social Democrats (CSSD), declares precisely this in its long-term program, [moreover] the deputies of the left already submitted [in vain] several bills of constitutional amendments concerning peoples' execution of power in referendums...

[VŠ]: I think, that it is necessary to seek further approaches and I also think, that the next step, in my opinion, is the direct election of the president [remark VR: who has by large purely representative tasks only]. Therefore I support this effort.

[VR]: Are you engaged personally in the preparations of the bill on general referendum? [ŠK]: The latest initiative announced looks quite concrete – is this already in the stage ready for realization or still more an idea, along the lines of Tony Blair's initiative concerning referendum on the EU Constitution?

[VŠ]: Yes, I am engaged in this matter, I think that the [constitutional] law on general referendum is a matter of crucial importance.

[ŠK]: Can the government of coalition, having only 101 voices out of 200 – that is the smallest majority possible – enforce a law demanding for constitutional majority [of two thirds...]? What support are you relying upon?

[VŠ]: It is not clear, whether the coalition will be able to enforce referendum, after all, Social Democrats (CSSD) submitted [the bill on] referendum about eight times already. I think, that much will rest with the pressure of the civil public.

[ŠK]: Do you suppose that the Communists (KSČM), at present in opposition [remark VR: ŠK assumes that KSČM may well participate in the new government coalition after this next elections...], would support the [present] coalition in the matter of general referendum, embracing in itself a referendum on EU Constitution?

[VŠ]: I do not know, what the Communists may support. Their position on a number of issues is surprising and ambivalent.

[VR]: Do you think, that the present generation of Czech citizens may live up to such political rights and in such an extent like others already enjoy, for example the citizens in Switzerland (4), [ŠK] where referendums in that or other form are a standard instrument of [political] power execution?

[VŠ]: No, I do not think, that our political development would lead to referendum democracy of the Swiss type. Yet I believe that we will succeed in enforcing our bill on referendum(s).

[ŠK]: Can you imagine a transformation of parliamentary democracy by reinforcing the institutes of direct democracy to such an extent, that they may even replace the legislative bodies by civil servants – experts, preparing groundwork materials for execution by the citizens – possibly supported by telecommunication and information technologies? Perhaps also on pan-European scale?

[VŠ]: No, I cannot imagine anything like that. This is not typical even in Switzerland, where referendum democracy is very developed, neither in the state of California, where referendums are possibly most advanced at all. [VR: ?]

[ŠK]: How would you see in the respect of this vision – today already technologically possible and in parts already being realized abroad – the role of political parties? Are they, in your opinion, ready to meet the challenge of nearing digital future?

[VŠ]: Like, at its time, the Roman legion laid down the scheme for any armed force for millenniums to come, so I am convinced that political parties are a form enabling people – based upon free association – to seek, freely and jointly, political solutions for various issues. Politics is a collective work. It cannot be done without community, same as you would not be able to produce on your own much less complicated things, like a motor-bike.

Notes – articles, excerpts, links

(1) in English:

(RFE/RL Newsline, 9.6.2003) – Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told a television audience on 8 June that he agrees with a proposal by the opposition Civic Democratic Party (ODS) to submit the European Constitution to a referendum in the Czech Republic, CTK reported.
International agencies quoted the president of the European Convention, Valerie Giscard d'Estaing, as saying on 6 June that a compromise has been reached and that a proposed European Constitution will be discussed at the EU Thessaloniki summit on 20 June. Spidla said such a referendum could be held in 2004, after the Czech Republic joins the EU. ODS Chairman Miroslav Topolanek welcomed the premier's statement.
During their televised debate, Topolanek rejected suggestions, including by Premier Spidla, that ODS does not fully support a "yes" vote in the accession referendum scheduled for 13-14 June.

(2) in English:

(EUobserver, 7.10.2003) ...Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on Tuesday (7 October) that his government will submit a bill on holding referendums which would enable people to express their stance towards the draft of the European constitution. According to Mr Spidla, who was speaking at an extraordinary session of the lower house of Parliament, the government will not draft a special law applying only to a referendum on the EU constitution but a general law on referendums which would pave the way to holding nationwide polls on various issues. "The government will submit to parliament a draft bill on a general referendum, since there are unquestionably a number of issues of first-rate importance which it is right to turn to the people", Mr Spidla said quoted by the CTK...

(3) in Czech:


(3) in English:

Prague (CTK, 2.5.2004) – Premier and senior government Social Democrats (CSSD) Chairman Vladimir Spidla said in TV Prima's Sunday match discussion programme today that a referendum on the proposed European constitution should be announced on the basis of a general referendum law.
Spidla's opponent in the discussion, head of the senior opposition Civic Democrats (ODS) Mirek Topolanek, said that he considers putting the two questions together to be blackmail. "It's the same blackmail as with the VAT bill, where the political ambitions of this government were put together with European regulations," Topolanek said. Topolanek said he wants a special referendum just for the European constitution.
Because of the CSSD's problems with pushing through a law on referenda, he said he expects problems with pushing through this bill. "In any case I support a bill that would create referenda as an institution, not a one-time referendum bill," Spidla said. The government promised to present a general referendum bill in October, but the government coalition is not united in this question.
Topolanek has said in the past that the ODS will not recommend that voters support the proposed constitution in its current form. He did not repeat this today, however. Topolanek presented Spidla with a large pacifier after the debate, symbolising that the Czech Republic is a newborn member of the EU. The ODS has been the biggest supporter of a referendum on the EU constitution, which is expected to be approved at the July EU summit.

The Czech Republic and nine...joined the European Union on the 1st May 2004...
...There is not a political consensus in the Czech Republic...The right wing opposition Civic Democratic Party is one of the most Eurosceptic mainstream right-wing parties in Europe. The party leader Mirek Topolanek has made it clear that he sees no need for a European Constitution, a view shared by the partys former leader, Czech President Vaclav Klaus. It is no coincidence that the British Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith chose Prague as the place to launch his partys fiercely Eurosceptic platform in July 2003, standing alongside Mr Topolanek. Like the British Tories, the Civic Democrats are in favour of a referendum on the EU Constitution, but they have stopped short of rejecting the Constitution outright.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the Communists, the third largest force in parliament, have also expressed scepticism over EU reform. They too are calling for a referendum on the Constitution. The Czech government will need the support of at least part of the opposition in order to ratify the Constitution when it is finally agreed, as the treaty will require a three-fifths majority in order to be approved by parliament, and the government currently enjoys only a fragile parliamentary majority...

(4) in English (also in French, German, Italian):

Political rights in the Swiss Confederation
How is a new law enacted? (Legislative procedure)