To vote or not to vote: the eternal dilemma at the heart of the Slovak referendum system6 min read
On a sunny, unassuming Saturday, 23 January, Slovaks had the chance to express their opinion on the issue of early elections and the government’s dismissal. Even before the Slovak referendum took place, it was almost certain that it would fail to attract enough voters for its results to be legitimate. Indeed, barely a quarter of eligible voters cast their vote.
This was not an exceptional result as most of the referendums held in Slovakia since 1993 have met the same fate: illegitimacy by low turnout. This not only means that no meaningful action can be taken as a result of the plebiscite, but it points at a deeper flaw in Slovak democracy and political participation. The popular disinterest in referendums is a worrying sign of a growing culture of political apathy that extends beyond the borders of Slovakia.
The referendum was a response by the opposition party SMER-SD (Direction – Social Democracy) to a multiplicity of crises the current government has faced over the last year. It consisted of two questions. The first asked whether the current government should resign with immediate effect. The second question aimed to introduce a constitutional change in the procedures leading up to early elections. While the current constitution requires a so-called “constitutional majority” (60% of the parliament) to call early elections, the referendum sought to reduce this number to an absolute majority of 50% .
Proclaimed invalid, the results of the referendum came as a surprise to no-one. In Slovakia, for a referendum to be legally binding and valid, the voter turnout must exceed 50%. In the January 2023 referendum, merely 27.24% of the eligible voters casted their votes, i.e., around 1.15 million people. Even though the result was a decisive ‘yes’, the 10 million euros spent on organising the plebiscite came to nothing — at least in terms of legislative change. This outcome is not a novelty in Slovakia. Since the country’s establishment in 1993, nine referendums have been held on various subjects. Of these, the only successful one was the 2003 plebiscite which preceded Slovakia’s accession to the EU.
The reason behind these statistics is simple. In Slovak political culture, referendums are usually called by the opposition with the intention to discredit or override the ruling coalition. Unlike in Switzerland, a country known for its system of semi-direct democracy where the referendum works as a sort of popular validation of a law, in Slovakia, the referendum is used as a tool to force the government to discuss issues they normally would not. Therefore, with the exception of the one successful referendum (which saw a turnout of just over 52%), referendums are often ignored and ridiculed by the incumbent parties.
As participation in a referendum is not mandated by law, parties opposed to its questions simply urge people to abstain from participation. This usually results in only a fraction of the population taking part in the vote. Since the majority of the people voting in a given referendum do so because they agree with the issues raised, this leads to a skewed result overwhelmingly in favour of the posed questions. For example, in the January 2023 plebiscite, over 98% of the votes cast supported the questions. Not only is the referendum not binding, the results also do not reflect the actual state of popular opinion, making it difficult to use the gathered data in any meaningful way.
With the exception of the one successful plebiscite, referendums in Slovakia are little more than a waste of public funds. This poses a dilemma about the very meaning of democracy in the country, an issue that exists in the region as a whole. In Hungary, over half of the referendums held since the fall of socialism have been invalid due to insufficient voter turnout. The continuous futility of referendums in both countries prompts questions about the state of democracy in the region and the dangers of systemic refusal to participate in political life.
In a democracy that aims to be more than just a set of procedures, popular participation in political decision-making is crucial. Not only because political participation is the fundamental mechanism for legitimising power, but also because active participation in political life is the only way for democracy to develop in a more meaningful and people-focused direction. In Slovakia, the level of political participation is far from ideal. In addition to the string of failed referendums, voter turnout for elections is consistently well below the EU average, and popular trust in the government and state institutions is equally low. These numbers reflect the perpetuation and gradual deepening of a political culture of apathy and indifference. Naturally, the reasons behind this trend are multiple, but by encouraging people to ignore referendums in Slovakia, political leaders are contributing to the problem rather than to its solution.
After eight invalid referendums during the short thirty years of independent Slovakia’s history, it is safe to conclude that something is not working. Referendums should not be pointless exercises in wasting public money; they should serve an integral role in keeping citizens engaged in political decision-making, and can provide important feedback on the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of a given political situation. As such, encouraging participation in referendums must become an integral part of the political culture. A democracy can function only if its subjects appreciate the necessity of their participation. Otherwise, democratic mechanisms can easily become a vehicle for demagogic politics, abuse of power, corruption, or clientelism.
However, this would have to come hand in hand with a change in how referendums are called, and what can and cannot be voted on in a plebiscite. In 2015, another referendum took place in Slovakia, which was surrounded by long and heated public debate. The referendum — dubbed “A referendum about the family” (Referendum o Rodine) — was called by a coalition of mostly Catholic conservative groups and aimed to restrict the constitutional definition of marriage to heterosexual unions, to prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children, and to allow parents to take their children out of sexual education classes if they disagree with the content.
A strong opposition of activists and progressive political groups campaigned against the referendum and urged people to abstain from voting. As a result, only 21.4% of people voted and the referendum was deemed invalid. The campaign and the aftermath of the referendum was accompanied by an important discussion about the limit of what can be changed through a referendum. The questions posed in this particular plebiscite carried a clear intention of inhibiting rights of a minority group and, if successful, would make the already unlikely legalisation of same-sex marriage and recognition of LGBTQ+ rights in Slovakia virtually impossible.
Therefore, the direction should be twofold. While political participation must be encouraged in order to reverse the reduction of democracy to a mere set of procedures, it needs to be accompanied by legislating a safeguarding procedure that would prevent discriminatory proposals from being put in front of a popular vote. However, with growing disenchantment with the party politics in the country, and “technocratic populism” on the rise in the region, the future of referendums as a relevant institution remains open and uncertain.