Croatia's Constitutional Court said on Monday it dismissed motions lodged by two conservative groups which had petitioned to propose two separate referendums on changing the election law to strip ethnic minority MPs of voting rights and on revoking the country's ratification of the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women.
The motions, asking the court to rescind the official verification of petition signatures, were rejected in two separate rulings in late December 2018. The rulings were adopted by a majority of judges’ votes, with one dissenting opinion.
The two groups, called People Decide and The Truth About Istanbul Convention respectively, had organised separate two-week petition drives in May this year, with both later saying that they had collected enough signatures to call referendums.
According to Croatian law, any group wishing to ask for a referendum must propose a specific question and then collect signatures of 10 percent of the electorate, which currently amounts to some 375,000 voters. In the next stage, the petitions are handed over to the government, and after the signatures are verified, the parliament can move to call for a referendum, or ask the Constitutional Court to check if the questions proposed are in line with the Constitution.
Both groups had organised two-week petition drives in May last year, which they had later submitted for verification claiming they had collected sufficient numbers of voters’ signatures to launch the referendums.
The group which opposes the Council of Europe’s so-called Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women wants the Parliament to revoke its decision to ratify the document, passed in April last year. The support of the centre-right government led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) for the convention was vocally opposed by ultra-conservative groups as well as right-wing factions of HDZ which openly confronted Plenkovic, but eventually backed down in a party leadership meeting in late March.
The reasons cited for their opposition include fears that implementing the convention would introduce “gender ideology” into the national legislation and possibly redefine marriage, as well as infringe on the country’s sovereignty, as the implementation of the convention’s provisions would be regularly tracked by Council of Europe’s experts.
The second group, styling itself People Decide, proposed an overhaul of the country’s election law, and grouped their proposals into two separate questions. The first one involved a series of changes in election legislation, while the second one involved barring MPs elected to represent ethnic minorities to decide on government formation and the state budget.
Croatia’s 151-seat parliament includes eight MPs elected by members of ethnic minorities, including three MPs representing ethnic Serbs. All eight minority MPs are aligned with Plenkovic’s centre-right cabinet and help maintain his government’s paper-thin parliament majority.
The initiatives were criticised by government ministers, NGOs, leader of ethnic Serbs, MP Milorad Pupovac, legal experts, and even Prime Minister Plenkovic himself, who called the proposed questions related to election law “irresponsible” and described their initative as a “step back for Croatian democracy.” However, in June both groups formally handed over their petitions to launch the referendum procedure.
In August, the government tasked the country’s interior and administration ministries with checking the signatures, which in turn hired the government’s software agency Apis IT for the job. In October, Public Administration Minister Lovro Kuscevic presented its report, which said that both groups failed to collect the required number of signatures.
The report said that all three questions proposed by the two groups fell short of the nearly 375,000 signatures required, saying that some 40,000 and 33,000 signatures were found to be invalid and struck from the petitions on account of various irregularities.