Changes proposed to referendum rules

Moves to change the Slovenian Constitution to make it more difficult to call a referendum are high on the political agenda at the moment. Parliament feels the current rules set out in Article 90 of the Constitution are too broad and, as a result, demands for referendums are being used to block reform. Four laws proposed by parliament were rejected by referendums in 2011, helping to bring down the government. One proposal is to remove taxes and the budget from the scope of referendums.

Background

In many countries, certain subjects may be constitutionally or legally excluded from being the subject of a referendum. Some countries have developed an exhaustive list of topics on which a referendum can be called.

Typically, as described in A comparative look at referendum laws (299Kb PDF) published by the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, exclusions are limited and commonly concern taxes and public expenditure. The general principle for limiting referendums is that their frequent use could render a government’s administration unworkable.

According to the Slovenian Constitution, however, the National Assembly may call a referendum on any issue which is regulated by law.

Referendums in 2011

In 2011, four laws proposed by the previous centre-left government of Slovenia were rejected at four referendums (SI1106019I).

On 10 April 2011, a referendum requested by the Union of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (ZSSS) was held and voters were asked whether they were for or against the law on temporary work. The law was decisively defeated with a surprising 80% of votes against.

On 5 June 2011, a triple referendum was held, in which voters were asked their opinion of three laws that were vital elements of the government’s economic reform programme. All three were rejected overwhelmingly by voters. In the referendum on pension reform, requested by ZSSS, 72.18% of the voters voted ‘no’. This resulted in the fall of the government and a snap election that brought the Conservative administration of Prime Minister Janez Jansa to power.

Referendums rejected in 2012

Towards the end of 2012, three referendums concerning the most vital parts of the government’s structural reforms were requested (SI1301021I), two of them by trade unions. In a decision issued on 19 December 2012, the Constitutional Court rejected two motions for a referendum:

  • on the so-called bad bank law, requested by the Chemical, Nonmetal and Rubber Industry Union of Slovenia (KNG), a member union of the ZSSS;
  • on the law on the new state holding that would manage all state assets and all state firms and speed up privatisation.

Public sector trade unions announced they would withdraw their request for a referendum to challenge legislation implementing the 2013–2014 budget. This law brought a 5% cut in Slovenia’s public sector wage bill.

ZSSS reacted very strongly against the decision of the Constitutional Court.

Article 90 of the Constitution

As a result of these recent attempts to block important government reforms, changes to the Constitution to prevent further use of referendums in this way are high on the political agenda.

Article 90 (Legislative referendum) of the Slovenian Constitution says:

  • the National Assembly may call a referendum on any issue which is regulated by law. The National Assembly is bound by the result of such referendum;
  • the National Assembly may call a referendum on its own initiative; but it must also call a referendum if so required by at least one third of the deputies, by the National Council or by 40,000 voters;
  • all citizens who are eligible to vote in elections have the right to vote in a referendum, and a majority vote decides the issue;
  • referendums are regulated by a law passed in the National Assembly by a two-thirds majority vote of deputies present.

Proposed changes

On 28 November 2012, the parliamentary expert commission issued a proposal for a number of changes to Article 90 (Legislative referendum) of the Constitution. The President of the National Assembly put forward a final proposal based on the commission’s recommendations and the comments of the political parties represented in the National Assembly (the parliament).

The proposal is that only the electorate should have the right to request a referendum, and members of parliament and the National Council should lose this right. Instead of a quorum to ensure the validity of a referendum, a so-called ‘rejection referendum’ was introduced.

Proposed new paragraphs of the Article 90 of the Constitution state that the National Assembly must ‘call a referendum on putting a law…into force if so required by at least 40,000 voters’.

However, it is not admissible to call a referendum:

  • on laws concerning urgent measures to ensure defence of the state, security or elimination of the consequences of natural disasters;
  • on laws concerning taxes, customs duties and other compulsory duties, and on the law which is adopted to implement the state budget;
  • on laws concerning ratification of international agreements;
  • on laws which eliminate unconstitutionality in the field of human rights and basic freedoms or other unconstitutionality.

The law is rejected on referendum if the majority of valid votes are against it, under the condition that at least a quarter of all voters vote against the law.

On 4 January 2013, after meeting with party leaders, the President of the Slovenian Parliament, Gregor Virant, said the necessary two-thirds majority existed (60 members of parliament out of 90) to adopt these changes to Article 90.

Reaction of trade unions

Together with some other non-governmental organisations, the trade unions argued fiercely against some of changes. Among other things, they demanded that the National Assembly should remain bound by the result of a referendum.

Commentary

Changes to the Law on Referendum and Public Initiative (LRPI) were also discussed in parliament. However, no consensus on these changes was reached.

The LRPI proposes that a request for a referendum can be made by any voter, political party or other association of citizens. The initiator of the request must first, within seven days of the adoption of a law, give notice of their request to the President of the National Assembly, and their initiative must be supported by the signatures of at least 2,500 voters.

If the initiative is submitted in accordance with the law, the President of the National Assembly must, among other things, determine the period within which the required 40,000 signatures supporting the call for a referendum must be presented. The maximum time allowed for this should be 35 days.

Štefan Skledar, UMAR

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