Croatia needs a referendum law that recognizes the importance of local democracy

22. December 2023.
Croatia needs a referendum law that recognizes the importance of local democracy 1

Almost half of all local referendums conducted since 1991 in Croatia have failed. Gong's in-depth study, fueled by data collected through Imamopravoznati.org, uncovers the reasons behind unsuccessful referendums and suggests ways of solving the issue.

The referendum is a fundamental instrument of direct democracy, but weak constitutional and legal framework for regulating the referendum process and defining the topics that can be decided on through this method can hinder the political participation of citizens. In Croatia, the valid Referendum Act is one of the most demanding laws in Europe in terms of the rules for launching a state referendum. For local referendums it sets the bar too high for determining the validity of the decision in the form of a minimum turnout (quorum) of 50% + 1 of all registered voters of the local unit. This significantly hinders the conditions for the development of local democracy, as Gong has pointed out based on examples from practice.

However, so far we have known very little about the practice of implementing local referendums, since no public body collects such data at the national level. Therefore, through the Imamopravoznati.org platform, Gong sent requests for access to information to all 575 local and regional self-government units in order to collect information on the number of local referendums conducted, the topics that were decided on and the outcomes, as well as potential referendum initiatives that were submitted to the local representative body without reaching the phase of implementation.

A complete picture of local referendums would only be guaranteed by systematically collected and carefully archived data, but with this comprehensive analysis - which includes hundreds of answered requests (525) and an analysis of media sources and data from the State Electoral Commission - we tried to get as clear a picture as possible of referendums held on at the local level from 1991 until today.

So far, 47 referendums have taken place at the local level in Croatia

At least one local referendum was organised in 35 units of local and regional self-government. Due to the impossibility of clearly determining the character of specific referendums (the manner in which they were initiated), this analysis includes referendums conducted at the local level, which in addition to local referendums (which can be initiated by citizens, representative bodies or the executive power of the unit) also includes consultative (non-binding) referendums , announced on the initiative of representative bodies of local and regional self-governments or the Government of the Republic of Croatia.

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The most local referendums - 10 of them - were held in Međimurje County, as many as three in Mala Subotica, two in Podturen and one in Domašinec, Goričan, Nedelišće, Pribislavec and Štrigova each. It is also interesting that a decision was successfully reached on most of them, with the exception of Pribislavec and Nedelišće. Decisions were mostly pertaining to the administrative affiliation of individual settlements, while the referendum in Goričan, which prevented the construction of a compost plant financed from the Fund for Environmental Protection and Energy Efficiency, attracted the most media attention.

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Međimurje is followed by Zagreb County, where the only regional-level referendum was held to decide on the separation of Zagreb (city) from the county. Other referendums in Zagreb County were held in Ivanić-Grad, Kloštar Ivanić, Križ, Pokupsko and Sveti Ivan Zelina. An equal number of referendums took place in Osijek-Baranja County, but it is worth noting that nine referendums in those two counties were held in 1996 for the purpose of reforming the administrative-territorial structure. Essentially, they were part of a consultative referendum initiated by the Government for several units of local and regional self-government, but since each unit was deciding on a different issue and with a different outcome, we counted each one as a separate referendum. After these referendums, some of the units from Sisak-Moslavina joined Zagreb County, and some of them moved from Požega-Slavonia to Osijek-Baranja County.

Six referendums were organised in Split-Dalmatia, with success only in Komiža on island Vis, where citizens objected to the installation of tuna farming cages in their midst. Four local referendums were held in Primorje-Gorski Kotar and four in Dubrovnik-Neretva County, but with significant differences in success. In the Dubrovnik-Neretva County, three referendums were successful - two in Blato and one in Ploče, with an average turnout of over 60% (as much as 92% in the referendum on the affiliation of several settlements to Blato and the establishment of a new local committee). In contrast, in Primorsko-Goranska only the referendum in Klana met the turnout criterion.

In Istria, in the area of Labin, a consultative referendum was used to decide on the construction of the Plomin C 500 coal-fired thermal power plant, and although 94% of the voters voted against it, the referendum failed due to insufficient turnout in all five local units. Two more local referendums were held in Buzet and Pula.

One referendum was organised in each of the following counties: Krapina-Zagorje (establishment of the municipality of Novi Golubovec), Sisak-Moslavina (joining Novska to the Požega-Slavonia County), Varaždin (turning the location of Ruškovica into a municipal waste disposal site) and Bjelovar-Bilogorje (joining a group of settlements to the Municipality of Ivanska), while there were no local referendums in the remaining counties.

It is necessary to reflect on the fact that out of all local referendums, only slightly more than half of them are legally deemed valid. More precisely, the validity of the referendum decision was established for 25 local referendums, while the other 22 failed due to insufficient turnout. This does not necessarily mean that they failed to achieve their goal. Invalid referendum decisions or suspended initiatives can still create enough public pressure to change the course of decision-making or provide a reason for citizens to continue being politically active (for example, the Initiative for Lungomare in Pula continues to fight against the privatisation of recreational/green surfaces in the area). However, the only way to make sure the will of citizens is not ignored by those in power is through legal recognition, which would make most of the referendum decisions binding.

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From communal issues to challenging local power

Local referendum topics were predominantly associated with the administrative affiliation and organisation of units - in as many as 25 local referendums decisions were made on the separation and annexation of settlements, regional affiliation, names and divisions of streets, and in one case on the establishment of a new unit (Novi Golubovec in Krapinsko-zagorska county). In this category, one distinguished case is the referendum on (re)naming streets in Pokupsko, which was held in February 2023 despite the initial decision of the Ministry of Justice and Administration that the referendum question was not in accordance with the law. The "Let's decide for ourselves" initiative fought for the referendum by filing two administrative lawsuits after the Ministry, according to the High Administrative Court, used "legal acrobatics" to prevent citizens from conducting the referendum. Though citizens collected a sufficient number of signatures, the Ministry declared the referendum question illegal, as a result of which the Initiative filed an administrative lawsuit. The High Administrative Court ruled in favour of the Initiative and sent the case back to the Ministry, but instead of complying with the court's binding decision, it rejected the request again. After the second lawsuit, the Court personally warned Minister Malenica that he risks a fine as the responsible person in the Ministry due to non-execution of the final ruling. The referendum ultimately took place, but with a turnout of less than 25%.

Issues related to communal infrastructure and services follow by frequency, with seven out of 12 local referendums deciding on waste management. Another 8 referendums concerned economic infrastructure and activities, such as the construction of thermal power plants in Plomin and Ploče and the wind power plant in Fužine, or the installation of cages for the cultivation of tuna in the bays of Vis and Brač. In this category we also included the Pula referendum on Lungomare and the Dubrovnik referendum on Srđ, which aimed to stop the urban and coastal devastation through excessive tourist activity, as well as the referendum on the reconstruction of the Novalja marina.

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Lastly, some referendums attempted to bring about the deposition of local politicians. A total of two such referendums were held: one in Pribislavec in 2011, when only 11% of citizens voted for or against the dismissal of municipal mayor Višnja Ivačić, and the other in Pučišća pertaining to the dismissal of Marin Kaštelan and his deputy Alen Parunov (in which slightly more than 30% of voters participated). There was also a referendum initiative for the dismissal of municipal mayor Mladen Vernić in Legrad, however, it was rejected by the Municipal Council. It is interesting that in this case the Ministry of Administration accepted the petitioner's appeal and ordered the calling of a referendum, but it still did not take place.

Numerous other local referendum initiatives suffered a similar fate. Out of the 13 initiatives that did not result in the calling of a referendum, the largest part was rejected precisely because the competent ministry judged the proposal to be incorrect, that is, inconsistent with the law - seven of them. In other cases, the reasons were an insufficient number of voter signatures, solving the problem by other means (e.g. the initiative to declare Lastovo a nature park achieved its goal without a referendum) or other unknown reasons.

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Insufficient voter turnout as a key obstacle to direct decision-making

Without diminishing the importance of involving a greater number of citizens in community decision-making, the key cause of the failure of most local referendums is found in strict legislation that prescribes a turnout of more than half of the total number of voters in a local unit. Gong has long proposed adjusting the turnout criteria for referendums in accordance with the degree of importance of the decision being made, so that the quorum for the validity of national referendum decisions is at least 50% + 1 vote of the total number of registered voters for constitutional changes, at least 35% + 1 vote for organic laws and at least 25% + 1 vote for laws and issues in the local referendum.

If we were to apply these rules to the local and consultative referendums conducted so far, the total number of 22 failed referendums would drop to four. If, on the other hand, we were to apply the minimum turnout of one third of the total number of registered voters, which is prescribed by the current proposal of the Government, the number of invalid local referendums would drop to 15.

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And while at the beginning of 2021 we wondered whether the new Law on Referendum would retain the old flaws, today we are wondering when that legal proposal will finally undergo a second reading in Parliament. It is worth noting that a 6-month deadline was set for harmonising the referendum legislation with the constitutional changes from 2010, which means that the new law should have been passed 13 years ago. During all this time, numerous opportunities for the development of local democracy through the direct involvement of citizens in community decision-making were missed.

Local referendum as a diminutive image of democracy in Croatia

By examining dozens of local referendums held in Croatia, as well as some of the citizens’  initiatives which attempted to directly influence political decisions in their communities, it became clear that current legislation on referendums does not provide a stimulating institutional framework for the development of local democracy. In some cases, such as the referendum in Pokupsko, we witness strong resistance to civil initiatives, which in many ways mirrors the insufficient inclusiveness and transparency of decision-making at the national level.

Outdated referendum legislation prescribes a high turnout threshold for the validity of a decision made at a local referendum, and it does not clearly define the procedure for submitting citizens' initiatives, which certainly has a discouraging effect. It is high time to pass a new law that will create favourable conditions for the development of local democracy - and an opportunity for Gong to repeat our recommendations.

Gong collected data on local referendums by sending a bulk request for access to information to more than 500 addresses of public authorities. Have your own research idea? Create a profile on Imamopravoznati.org and request the Pro version for free, which allows sending the same request to multiple addresses, as well as delaying the publication of the request during the data collection period.

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