February 9, 2018
The Czech Republic has no legitimate government, but that isn’t stopping a bizarre alliance — comprised of Andrej Babis’s ANO, the communists, the far right SPD and the Pirate Party — from moving to fundamentally change how the country works. Mr Babis’s party received less than 30% of the general election vote but is nonetheless governing right now and creating on a new law that would make it easier for Czechs to hold national referenda. Amid the volatile political mood, and daily reminders of the folly of the 2016 Brexit vote, it easy to imagine how this could lead to disaster.
While democracy is very much about the public using the ballot box to guide state policy, functioning democracies (when they function) also depend on constitutions and institutions (like courts and representative elective bodies) to moderate swings in public mood. They operate very much like speed limits on the roads. Driving forward is a good thing, even driving forward quickly is generally okay, but driving too fast becomes dangerous. Not only does it endanger other people (both inside and outside the car), but it also makes the driver more likely to miss their turn, make a wrong turn, or get lost.
It’s not that emotions should be kept completely out of politics, but they should not be the only hands on the steering wheel. In places where referenda are a means for guiding state policy there are also “rules of the road” to calm potentially destabilizing effects of a referendum. Switzerland, for example, has a highly federalized political system where the scope of legal changes are frequently — but not always — limited to the local canton. In Slovakia, the requirement that at least 50% of voters take part in the vote means that only issues that most of the public feels are important can ever be impacted by a referendum.
This is very much different from some of the proposals now being discussed by the Czechs. The Pirates don’t want any minimum turnout threshold for a referendum to be valid. Meanwhile, one model for the law would see just 100,000 petition signatures (0.95% of the population) as enough to call a national referendum. In combination, these two things are not a recipe for better democracy, but anarchy. They are a car accident waiting to happen.
Three of the four aforementioned parties are willing to hold a vote on whether the Czech Republic should stay in the European Union (ANO has no actual political convictions, so for today they are against it). Though I tend to think that a Czexit from the EU would be the equivalent of driving off a cliff, there is an argument to be had that the EU can only function properly in the future is if it has greater democratic legitimacy.
It’s too bad the people discussing the referendum law don’t have the same thing. Before changing how the country is governed, it would make sense to form an actual government first.