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NATO referendum: another major clash in the offing

The Czech coalition parties and the opposition Social Democrats (CSSD) are close to a major clash over the question of whether there should be a plebiscite on the Czech Republic's NATO membership. The three coalition parties, supported by President Havel, are unanimously opposed to a referendum, while the CSSD says it wants a plebiscite.

The conflict is, in many ways, an artificial one. Although leading CSSD members probably know there is no need for a referendum on this question, the CSSD sees it as an opportunity to further destabilize the ruling coalition. Once again, an issue of major importance for the country's standing in the international community is being held hostage to petty domestic conflicts.

The CSSD rightly says that its demand to hold a referendum is nothing new. A plebiscite on NATO membership is part of the CSSD electoral program, which had been issued prior to the June 1996 parliamentary elections. The program also says that the CSSD is opposed to putting foreign military bases and nuclear weapons on Czech territory.

The coalition parties, the president, and a majority of leading commentators have argued that a referendum is not necessary because NATO membership, unlike EU membership, does not affect the country's sovereignty. Most CSSD leaders have lately avoided challenging this view. But they argue a referendum is necessary because opinion polls show that the public's support for NATO membership is too low. Only about 40% of the Czechs support NATO membership, about 30% are undecided, and the rest are against.

The chief reason for a lack of support, the CSSD claims, is the government's failure to explain to the public what NATO membership entails--its costs and benefits. A referendum seems to be the only way to have a wide-ranging debate over the issue, the CSSD says.

This argument is valid only partially. The coalition parties rightly point out that the same opinion polls the CSSD cites to show that the public's support for NATO membership is low also show that support is high among followers of the three coalition parties. It is much lower among CSSD supporters--only some 20%-30%. Most of the people who vote for the two extremist parties--the Republicans and the Communists--are staunchly opposed to NATO membership.

Coalition leaders argue that if the CSSD's real reason for holding a referendum indeed is low public support, the party--whose leaders say they support NATO membership--should launch an information campaign aimed at its own supporters. Coalition leaders also argue that the real reason for low support among CSSD voters is that CSSD politicians give confusing signals. Demanding a referendum is allegedly one of them.Foreign Minister Josef Zieleniec recently remarked that the CSSD's effort to hold a referendum on NATO membership resembles an attempt to open a door that is already open.

The CSSD says it wants to campaign heavily in favor of NATO membership before a referendum but is unsure about whether the referendum should have only a consultative character or be legally binding. Should the referendum have only a consultative character the party is not sure about how it would react, should people reject NATO membership. Would it respect people's will or would it vote for NATO membership in the parliament during the ratification process regardless of the referendum's results?

A closer examination of the clash over a NATO membership referendum reveals two major issues. First, the real motivation of the CSSD is not to determine how many people are interested in NATO membership or convincing the undecided voters they should be in favor of NATO membership. The real motivation is to use weak public support to embarrass the coalition--to show not only it has neglected campaigning for NATO membership and that it is less democratic than the CSSD, when it refuses a referendum on such an important issue. The CSSD is right--to some extent--in that the Czech public should clearly express its preferences. If the Czech Republic becomes a NATO member while opinion polls continue to show that only more than a third of people actively support NATO membership, it may not be politically and morally right.

The second issue is the issue of referendum in general. The CSSD has for years campaigned for a constitutional amendment that would make it possible to hold nation-wide referendums in some cases. The constitution allows holding referendums, but the coalition has blocked any efforts to introduce a constitutional amendment that would set specific rules for holding referendums. NATO membership is an issue of such importance that it allows the CSSD to make a case for holding referendums in general. If coalition continues to oppose a referendum it can be portrayed as ignoring the will of the people.

The referendum controversy could, however, backfire in at least two ways. The opposition does not have enough votes to force the adoption of a constitutional amendment (a three-fifth majority in both houses is necessary). If the coalition rejects a referendum on NATO membership, would the CSSD vote against NATO membership during the ratification process? In other words, the CSSD may be putting itself in an uncomfortable position.

Another danger is that the Czech Republic may suffer internationally owing to the dispute. President Havel last week asked all democratic parties, including the CSSD, to support NATO membership--without preconditions. He realizes that foreign parliaments, when the ratification process starts, will take a note of low support for NATO membership in the Czech Republic. Under such circumstances, it would be desirable if Czech democratic parties, who have the support of 80% of the voters, at least were able to show they are united in their stance on NATO. But that option, too, now seems to be increasingly unrealistic.

Reuters - 30. 6. 1997