On Wednesday evening, the Jutarnji List daily reported that two separate petitions to hold national referendums which had been backed by conservative groups have failed to collect the proscribed 10 percent of electorate's signatures.
Both initiatives had organised a drive to collect signatures in May this year, and handed over the petitions to parliament in June.
The group called People Decide petitioned for two questions to be put to a national referendum - one referred to an overhaul of the current election law, and the other proposed banning the eight MPs elected to represent ethnic minorities in the 151-seat parliament to take part in government budget and confidence votes. They said they collected little over 400,000 signatures in support of each question.
The idea of limiting voting rights of ethnic minority MPs was criticised by several NGOs and the government itself.
A second group which called itself Truth About Istanbul Convention petitioned for a national referendum to revoke the parliament's ratification of Council of Europe's international convention on combating violence against women, listing several reasons for their opposition, including claims that the convention includes "gender ideology". They said they turned over 377,000 signatures for their cause.
According to Croatian law, referendum petitions must collect 10 percent of the registered electorate, or around 375,000 unique signatures of eligible voters, for the proposals to be considered valid.
Both initiatives were backed by various conservative and right-wing groups, and their proposals were criticised by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and members of his cabinet, most recently on Wednesday, when Plenkovic told parliament that "initiatives that aim to diminish minority rights are undermining the democratic standards we have achieved."
After the petitions are handed over and checked by authorities to confirm that the sufficient number of signatures have been collected, the parliament can ask the Constitutional Court to rule whether the questions proposed are in line with Constitution, and can go forth to set a date for the referendum.
The ministry of public administration had tasked the Apis IT government agency to check the signatures, and was given a 45-day deadline to finish the job, set to expire on October 18.
But on Wednesday, Jutarnji List, citing unnamed sources, said that Apis had discovered many irregularities with the signatures and concluded that neither initiative had cleared the 375,000 threshold.
The report said that the check of signatures and accompanying personal data indicated that a number of those listed for the petition opposing the Istanbul Convention may have been copied and pasted from an earlier successful 2013 petition which changed the Constitution to effectively ban same-sex marriage, and which had been launched by a group led by ultra-conservative activist Zeljka Markic.
Meanwhile, the People Decide initiative to change election law, which is also supported by Markic's group, filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court this week, saying that the government checking signatures for a referendum it openly opposed was unlawful and represented conflict of interest.
MP Grmoja (Most) takes the floor in protest, minister Kuscevic says speculations premature
Reacting to the Jutarnji report, MP Nikola Grmoja of the opposition populist Most party occupied the floor in Parliament on Wednesday evening in protest.
"Given that the entire process of counting signatures has been compromised from the very start, and that the intention of (Public Administration) Minister Lovro Kuscevic and Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is clear - namely that there should be no referendum - I will, in protest, occupy this floor and I do not plan on moving," Grmoja said.
He called on the Croatian people to react, adding that "the first protest against the government would be held in Vukovar on Sunday", referring to a previously announced and unrelated protest widely seen as a veiled right-wing event designed to pressure PM Plenkovic.
Grmoja was issued with two warnings by Deputy Speaker Milijan Brkic (HDZ), after which Brkic moved to end the session, with Grmoja continuing to stand on the podium for an unspecified period of time.
On Thursday, Public Administration Minister Lovro Kuscevic dismissed Jutarnji List's claims and said no official reports have been compiled yet.
"I do not have the information yet... Everything we hear and read about on some news websites is not information. Once I receive the official report from the commission - and that will be real information - I will gladly comment on each individual signature," Kuscevic said before the government session.
Kuscevic said that the commission entrusted with the verification of referendum signatures could complete its job by Wednesday, October 17, and submit its official report, in accordance with legal provisions.
"The commission is in charge of everything now, everything must be transparent, each signature must be verified," Kuscevic said.