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EDITORIAL

The will of the people?

SLOVAKIA definitely has a troubled history of using the public plebiscite as a democratic tool. Of the seven referenda the country has held since its independence in 1993, only the one asking “do you agree that Slovakia should become an EU member country” has been valid. Moreover, there was no referendum held before the so-called velvet divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks within former Czechoslovakia, which gave birth to Slovakia.

SLOVAKIA definitely has a troubled history of using the public plebiscite as a democratic tool. Of the seven referenda the country has held since its independence in 1993, only the one asking “do you agree that Slovakia should become an EU member country” has been valid. Moreover, there was no referendum held before the so-called velvet divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks within former Czechoslovakia, which gave birth to Slovakia.

One of the referendums, the one on Slovakia’s entry to NATO announced in 1997, was actually thwarted by the interior minister of the government of Vladimír Mečiar, while the rest were made void by the disinterest of the public, who failed to turn out for the vote.

The most recent six-question referendum, initiated by the Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party back in 2010, was seen by many as a publicity gimmick for the party before it actually made it into the coalition government of prime minister Iveta Radičová, only to play a key role in bringing that government down just a little more than one year later.

When asked about the success of his homeland in using referendums, former Swiss Ambassador Christian Fotsch told The Slovak Spectator that a very important precondition is “responsibility or common sense”.

Indeed, referendums can be meaningful if held for the right reason and used to ask the right questions. Short of this, each poorly orchestrated attempt only contributes to public apathy and delegitimises this important tool.

The recent attempt of the Alliance for Family (AZR), which shelters more than 100 mainly pro-life and traditionalist organisations, to hold a referendum on what it calls the protection of “families” will only contribute to the country’s negative referendum experience.

The AZR, which collected more than 400,000 signatures under its petition, thus fulfilling one of the main legal requirements for a plebiscite, wants an answer to the following questions, among others: Do you agree that no other cohabitation of persons other than a bond between one man and one woman can be called marriage? Do you agree that same-sex couples or groups shouldn’t be allowed to adopt children and subsequently raise them?

Is it actually in line with the country’s constitution to pose these questions in a referendum?
What will come next – a referendum on whether childless couples or divorced people are of the same value in society as couples who have kids? Or going even further, whether people of a particular ethnicity can build their houses on land they legally buy?

Well, President Andrej Kiska had certain doubts about the nature of such questions and has requested that the Constitutional Court assess whether the four questions proposed for the referendum on the protection of family are in line with the country’s constitution. This comes as a disappointment to those who initiated the petition.

It would seem to be common sense that the AZR would want to know whether their questions violate people’s constitutional rights, but apparently not.

There are some precious moments in history when the masses displayed wisdom, but when issues pertaining to minorities are involved, the masses are very vulnerable to campaigns that capitalise on fears, frustrations and stereotypes. Limiting the unpredictable swings of public opinion in such situations is exactly what constitutions are meant for.

To further clarify matters, Slovakia’s constitution already defines marriage as a “unique bond between a man and a woman” as a result of a peculiar marriage between the populist ruling Smer, which declares itself a social democratic party, and the conservative Christian Democratic Movement (KDH). That amendment passed earlier this year and was born from pure political calculation.

Such definitions in the constitution and similar referendums only further codify the gap between those who purportedly deserve the protection of the state – and have rights – and those who for some reason or other fall outside those bounds.

Instead of wasting time on further isolating people who are already having their rights curbed, it might be worthwhile to have a referendum on something that actually poses a threat to the next generation of Slovak children. There are plenty of them.

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