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Referendum as a Tool of Democracy

06 marzo 2019 -
Referendum as a Tool of Democracy

Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Peter Horváth [1]

[1] Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ss. Cyril and Methodius in Trnava (SLOVAK REPUBLIC) 

 

Abstract

Democracy is generally considered as a universal value in the history of modern states. At this point, it should be emphasized that this is perceived above all in the context of the consistent application of the principles undoubtedly related to democracy. One of them is the citizen’s right to manage public affairs, through a referendum. The referendum is called an instrument of direct democracy. In the conditions of the Slovak Republic it is used at national and municipal level. At national level, it is most often used as a tool to promote partial party goals - the most common topic of national referendums so far has been the issue of shortening the opposition’s existing government term. The topic of the paper is a more detailed view on the topic of local referendums - whether they are used to solve the immediate problems of citizens at the level of municipalities and towns or as the pattern which national referendum confirms - playing political games. Unfortunately, it appears that even municipal level is not immune to classical political games.

 

Introduction

If we want to address the issue of referendum (in our case mainly a local referendum), it is important to realize that it is a relatively non-standard instrument. The Slovak Republic is based primarily on the principle of representative democracy. Its basic principle is that citizens as holders of the power in the state vote their representatives, who subsequently exercise their mandates under the oath of a member of the parliament in the spirit of independence and their best conviction, in regular democratic elections fulfilling conditions of universality, equality, secrecy and directness, for a predefined term of office [1]. This basic democratic principle of governance - a system of representative democracy based on freedom, human dignity, equality in rights - is without a doubt the most common way of governance on any level of power [2].

Looking at the principle of democracy itself, two limit values of definition emerge. These definitions are also the two fundamental principles of using the direct democracy elements within the constitutional system - a minimalist and a maximalist principle [3]. The minimalist concept of democracy, as presented by Joseph Schumpeter, is based on an axiom that citizens should participate in the elections in the highest possible number. In the election they are supposed to choose, from the selection in a fair competition, the most suitable candidates that would promote their attitudes during an exactly specified electoral term. Hereby, a consistency with the opposite, maximalist concept can be found. The essential difference, however, is that during the electoral term the citizens are supposed to leave the entrusted power to their representatives; they should not interfere with performance of their function and should fully conform to the governance of the elected representatives, as they are not sufficiently equipped with knowledge, information and possibilities to be able to actively participate in solving problems, tasks and challenges. However, their right or an obligation in the following election to choose, whether to keep the power in the hands of the current elite or change it, remains untouchable [4]. On the contrary, the maximalist concept, presented by e.g. Robert Dahl, entrusts the power to decide to the citizens not only during the actual elections, but it enables them to participate on the decision-making process by various mechanisms throughout the electoral term. This provides them with the possibility to actively join and influence the decision-making on essential issues. One of the most common instruments to reach this state is an institute of the direct democracy - referendum [5].

 

Institute of referendum in the conditions of the Slovak Republic

The makers of political and constitutional system of the Slovak Republic, as in other democratic countries, have clearly been inspired mostly by ideas of the maximalist theory of democracy. Therefore, an institute of referendum and later also an institute of plebiscite on the recall of the president of the Slovak Republic have become a part of the law. While the issue of the possibility of recalling the head of state is legally almost completely underpinned and realized, it is not the case for the institute of referendum, although, considering the frequency of their application, it should be the opposite. The institute of referendum is anchored in the Title five of the Constitution of the Slovak Republic - Legislative Power. Besides enumerating reasons for a referendum to be held obligatorily - confirmation of joining/secession from a union with other states - it also enumerates other possibilities of holding a referendum with a strict prohibition in areas of fundamental rights and freedoms, taxes, duties and state budget.

It defines an eligible voter as a citizen of the Slovak Republic eligible to vote in the elections to the National Council of the Slovak Republic. A referendum is declared by the president of the Slovak Republic on the basis of a parliament resolution or a petition of at least 350 000 citizens, which is approximately 8 percent of all voters. The head of state can request an assessment of constitutionality of the proposed subject of the referendum from the Constitutional Court of the Slovak Republic. A referendum can be held on the day of the parliamentary election, but not in the period of 90 days before this date. A referendum is valid when an absolute majority of all eligible voters (50% plus one vote) participates, a positive result is valid if an absolute majority of participants on that particular valid referendum votes for it (therefore, under certain circumstances, 25% of eligible voters plus one vote suffice for a positive referendum). The referendum procedure is administered by the State Commission for Elections and Control of Financing of Political Parties.*



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