Calls to annul the Croatian EU accession referendum question its legitimacy

Vladimir Seks

An enormous legal storm seems to be brewing in Croatia.

Almost the minute the referendum results were announced (late in the night of  22 January) in favour of EU accession the former deputy parliamentary speaker of Croatia, Vladimir Seks (HDZ), boasted: “…without the changes in the Constitution, agreed to between HDZ and SDP, the referendum would not have passed.”

It is thus official: the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), in power to December 2011, and Social Democratic Party (SDP), in power since December 2011 had agreed to adjust the Referendum law in 2010 to secure a future “sure win” for the case of European Union accession referendum.

The last couple of days saw some interesting but disturbing developments in Croatia regarding the EU referendum.

The pro-EU camp is attempting to argue the reduction of the actual number of registered voters in order to bump up the overall turnout numbers above 50%. (The turnout vis-a-vis total number of registered voters was a poor 44% according to Croatian Electoral Office).

Certainly, the idea that the Croatian electoral roll is in shambles is by no means new. In the aftermath of the past couple of general elections there’d been protests that there seemed to be more registered voters on the roll than citizens eligible to vote. Estimates of up to half million of “suspect” registered voters had been bandied around. But, no one it seems did anything about it.

Serious commotion regarding the electoral roll commenced when, on 25th January, the  Dubrovnik online portal published an article claiming that the referendum was neither constitutional nor legal. This claim was backed by legal assessment of the laws governing referendums. I.e. it claims that while decisions are made on basis of majority votes among the votes actually cast, this must be under the condition that the majority of registered voters actually cast their votes.

It is claimed that the Parliament had omitted to adjust the new 2010 Referendum Act and, hence, the pre-existing condition of majority of registered voters to cast votes remains.

The problem seems to be that in accordance with Constitutional law for the enforcement of the Croatian constitution, articles of the changed Referendum constitution cannot be applied prior to their enactment that is, prior to the adjustment of the referendum law.

Media reports lead us to believe that an application to the Croatian Constitutional court for assessment of the validity of the referendum results is already on its way.

If such sloppy work in processing new laws by the Croatian parliament is proven by the Constitutional court it’s high time to bring in a new, mighty broom and sweep the “old geezers”, the stale political elite, out. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb), B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

Dismal 28% of Croatians vote in favour of European Union accession

For and Against EU membership Croatian referendum brochure released by the government

Media in Croatia (and abroad) is abuzz with the high percentage of casted votes delivering a “Yes to EU” vote. 66.27 % Yes votes counted by midnight 22 January 2012 (Croatia’s official electoral office results).

Looking further at those figures:

a)      TOTAL number of registered voters at counted polling places – 4 488 938

b)      TOTAL number of registered voters that voted – 1 958 709 or 43.63%

c)      TOTAL number of valid votes from b) above – 1 947 651 (99.44%)

d)     TOTAL number of polling places processed to midnight – 99. 81%

The reality is that around 44% of all voters in Croatia turned up to vote at the referendum.

This was among the lowest turnouts in any of the EU states that have held accession referendums before they joined (in its day Hungary had 46%)

Regardless of this, the Yes vote of 66.27% of votes cast (add a small figure to this as counting of a relatively minor number of votes, domestic and from the Diaspora, is still to be processed in the coming days) is in accordance with national referendum laws/constitution valid as there is no minimum threshold of total number of votes cast for results to be valid.

Translated into actual people or registered voters in Croatia the referendum results point to the fact that only 28.64% of all Croatian voters said Yes to the EU membership.

This makes the referendum victory a bitter and concerning one, indeed.

It says more about the great divide among Croatians when it comes to joining the European Union than anything else.

Not even the “alluring” arguments of the government’s Yes campaign, not even its blackmailing arguments managed to move the majority of registered voters into casting their vote. One simply must ask why and seek the answer; if not now then in the near future.

The opportunity that the governments and mainstream Croatian political parties had in the past year or so (when the negotiations and requirements in the accession to EU process picked up on speed) to strengthen the grassroots of democratic process – personal/individualised ownership and responsibility in the working democracy – has been squandered on monocular and often blackmailing and sweet-talking pro-EU campaigns. These seem to have confused many people, made them dig their heels in as protest, more than helping them understand so that their personal decision making comes at relative ease.

For a long time the negotiations for accession to EU membership had been riddled with obstacles imposed by the EU (see Timeline: Croatia link on this website), generating palpable and widespread bitterness and distrust in EU among the people.

Suddenly (2011), the EU turned to beckoning Croatia into its bosom with accolades for Croatia’s achievements.

With the horrible Homeland war (1991-1995) still fresh in memories, with a great deal of outstanding matters to still be resolved in pursuing justice for war victims, the governments and mainstream political parties never thought to promote understanding among the grassroots (the people) of this colossal turnaround in EU’s views about Croatia.

Distrust in politicians by a majority of citizens is evident in the low turnout for the referendum. It seems that the enthusiasm to participate in the democratic process at the level of every individual citizen (the grassroots) seen in developed democracies does not yet exist in Croatia. It does not exist, to my opinion, because the Croatian mainstream political parties still continue to thrive on “political elitism”, separating themselves from the grassroots.

On commenting the referendum result Croatia’s Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said: “This is a historic moment, and could be a turning point in our history“.

Well, it is a historic moment but not in the way that Milanovic may be thinking. In 1991, 94% of all Croatia’s voters voted to secede from communist Yugoslavia. In 2012, in effect, 28.64% of them voted to join the EU!

And is likely to provide fodder for continued political instability and disenchantment among the people at Croatia’s grassroots.

Commenting on the referendum results Croatia’s foreign minister Vesna Pusic said: “With this, we leave behind political instability, but the rest will depend on our ability and creativity.”

Obviously, I do not agree with her as the overwhelming number of Croatian people who in 1991 voted for an independent Croatia had decided to abstain from participation in the referendum and that fact alone suggests that there is still a great deal of work to be done in Croatia on individual ownership and participation, by voting, in the whole-country direction and welfare.

On a positive note, Croatia has achieved significant progress in aligning its modern laws and practices with those found in the European Union and western democracies. And perhaps the membership in EU albeit with lukewarm, even seemingly cold in many instances, sentiments from the grassroots will actually do what Croatian politicians should have done themselves: assist the Croatian people in realising how each and every person is so very important. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb), B.A.,M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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