Citizens will approve or reject amendments to the Serbian Constitution in a referendum on January 16. The referendum question will be: Are you in favour of confirming the Act on Changing the Constitution?”, while the possible answers will be “Yes” and “No”.
With just a few days left before the vote, it is unclear if the citizens are well informed about the referendum, i.e. about the subject on which they should declare themselves on Sunday.
Until recently, the authorities didn’t try very hard to inform the public about the referendum, and the opposition parties’ positions on the issue have crystallized only in recent weeks. However, the lack of information and debate on the referendum does not diminish its importance, since the changes relate to the judiciary, i.e. one of the essential institutions of the state.
According to The Solidarity political platform, the majority of Serbian citizens aren’t aware that a referendum will be held on Sunday, or what exactly is proposed to be amended in the highest legal act of the state. The organization points out that “amendments to change the Constitution in the part concerning the judiciary were adopted by the assembly with no viable opposition and without a broad public debate.”
“The proposed changes will be merely cosmetic, while our judiciary will remain inefficient, working in the service of the privileged social classes in a partocratic state”, Solidarity states.
Why didn’t the authorities inform the public about the constitutional referendum timely and adequately? Lawyer Sofija Mandić proposed an answer to that question in an article for the opinion outlet Peščanik, arguing that low turnout increases the chance that the referendum will result in a decision preferred by the ruling coalition:
“Given that the referendum will be successful if the majority of voters vote in favour of the constitutional changes, a referendum that flies under the media and voters’ radar does not represent a real risk for the ruling party. The situation was completely different in 2006, when a possible boycott of the referendum by a large number of voters also meant its possible failure. Today, somewhat absurdly, the more constitutional passivity and inaction of citizens, the easier to pass a referendum decision. The only risk to its success is the mobilization of the opposite side, the ‘vote NO’ camp.”
What do opposition coalitions say?
Unlike the referendum on changing the Constitution, the elections that await us in April 2022 provoked a lot of discussion last year. By the end of 2021, five coalitions have been formed between the opposition parties. Despite the political differences, the majority of them agree that the citizens should participate in the referendum and vote against the constitutional changes.
The Green-Left Coalition, which consists of the Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own movement, the Open Civic Platform “Action” and the Environmental Uprising movement, is in favour of citizens participating in the referendum and voting against changing the Constitution.
The coalition members have stated that the change of the constitution is taking place in an undemocratic environment, without adequate informing and discussion on the matter, and that the proposed changes to the constitution would not ensure the independence of the judiciary.
As Biljana Đorđevic from the Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own writes for Vreme news magazine, transferring the responsibility for the election of judges and prosecutors from the Assembly to the High Judicial Council and the High Prosecutorial Council, which the proposed amendments to the Constitution envisage, would represent a continuance of twisting the hand of the judiciary by the political option in power, only by different means.
On the other hand, the coalition headed by the Party of Freedom and Justice, the Democratic Party and the People’s Party, are against citizens’ participation in the referendum. Although the statements of the party leaders differ somewhat, it seems that this coalition’s main argument against taking part in the referendum is the lack of democracy. As Vreme reports, representatives of the Party of Freedom and Justices have stated that the party does not recognize the legitimacy of the assembly led by one party, especially when it comes to making an important decision such as changing the Constitution.
As the expert public commented, the position of the coalition could be interpreted as contradictory, since it will take part in the April elections; elections called by the president of the same National Assembly whose legitimacy the coalition disputes when it comes to the referendum.
Three coalitions consisting of parties from the right side of the political spectrum are also calling for the citizens to participate in the referendum and vote against the amendment of the Constitution. The coalitions in question are the coalition of the Enough is Enough – the Sovereignists movement and the Healthy Serbia party; the NADA coalition, whose members are the Democratic Party of Serbia, the Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia and 25 other associations; and the patriotic and anti-globalist bloc consisting of Dveri and seven smaller associations and parties.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Serbian on Jan 13, 2022.