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Referendum: Direct democracy and its various forms

Local referendums are one of the basic elements of direct democracy, allowing residents of towns and cities to directly influence important decisions about their environment. A number of local referendums have been held in the Czech Republic over the years, bringing debate and controversy into public life. Let us look at the theoretical background to their holding and some of the examples from the practice of municipalities and cities.

místní referendum v čr
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What is a referendum?

A local referendum is an instrument of direct democracy where local people use their vote to decide on issues that are important in their community. The process is governed by the Local Referendum Act , which sets out how, when and who can vote. A local referendum covers issues that fall under the independent jurisdiction of municipalities, cities, statutory cities, boroughs, urban districts or the capital and statutory city. Unlike an election, it focuses on individual decisions about the future of a local authority.

Who can participate in a local referendum?

Every citizen has the right to take part in a local referendum and also has the right to vote for the municipal council. This citizen must be a citizen of the Czech Republic (or a citizen of a state that allows him/her to vote on the territory of the Czech Republic). However, there are certain obstacles, such as restrictions on personal freedom by law, deprivation of legal capacity, or active military service, which may prevent participation in a local referendum.

What is excluded from a local referendum?

A local referendum cannot cover issues that are specifically defined by law. These issues include, for example, local taxes and budget, the election and removal of a mayor or mayoral candidate, issues in conflict with the law, issues decided in special proceedings, the conclusion of public contracts to exercise delegated powers, or the approval, amendment or repeal of a general binding ordinance of the municipality. A local referendum also cannot be held within 24 months of a previous valid decision on the same matter.

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Legal regulation of referendums in the Czech Republic

The basis for holding referendums is the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right of citizens to participate in the administration of public affairs directly or by freely electing representatives. Referendums are thus a valuable tool that allows citizens to influence public life and decide on key issues affecting their lives and future.

Referendums can also take place at different levels, namely national, regional and local. At the constitutional level, it is theoretically possible to hold referendums on national issues in the country. However, no draft law on general referendum has been finally approved yet.

Local referendums allow residents of a particular municipality to decide on local issues. The referendum must be supported by a minimum number of signatures from citizens, and the result is binding if a certain percentage of participation and yes votes is met.

Another form of referendum is the regional referendum, which allows the residents of the region to vote on issues that fall within the independent competence of the region. For a county referendum to be valid, a certain turnout and a minimum number of votes are also required for a binding decision.

How does the local referendum work?

The Local Referendum Act regulates the local referendum or local popular vote. A local referendum is held if the municipal or statutory city council decides to hold it, or if a preparatory committee submits a proposal for holding it and the council decides to call it. The proposal of the preparatory committee is valid if it is supported by a certain number of eligible persons, which depends on the size of the municipality or statutory town.

The municipal or statutory citycouncil may call a local referendum by a majority vote of all members of the council. The local referendum is then officially announced by posting the resolution on the official board of the municipality or town hall for 15 days.

The second option is to announce it on the proposal of the preparatory committee. This consists of at least 3 authorised persons and has certain tasks to perform. For example, it can propose the holding of a local referendum, delegate members to the electoral commissions, or file a motion to invalidate the vote. The proposal of the preparatory committee must be accompanied by the signatures of the supporting authorised persons, which must be certified by the municipal authority of the municipality or the municipality of the statutory town.

Questions that cannot be asked in a local referendum are questions concerning local taxes, the budget of the municipality or statutory town, the election and removal of the mayor or mayoralty, or other questions that would be contrary to the law. Also, a referendum cannot be held if 24 months have elapsed since the last valid decision on the same question in a local referendum.

In contrast, a local referendum can typically be held on questions of the construction or alteration of important buildings such as hospitals, town halls, railway stations or other strategically important buildings. However, there is no limit to the imagination of municipal councils.

How to do it if you want to call a referendum?

A local referendum is held if the municipal council or the council of the statutory city decides to hold a referendum, or if the preparatory committee submits a proposal for a referendum and the council decides to hold one. The preparatory committee is composed of at least three authorised persons who propose the organisation of the referendum and delegate members to the voting committees.

The proposal of the preparatory committee may be submitted if it is supported by the signatures of the municipality or a part of the municipality that has:

  • up to 3 000 inhabitants………….at least 30% of eligible persons,
  • up to 20 000 inhabitants………..at least 20% of the eligible persons,
  • up to 200 000 inhabitants………at least 10% of the eligible persons,
  • over 200 000 inhabitants…….not less than 6% of eligible persons.

A referendum is valid when the specified quorum of participation is met and a majority of those voting decides in favour of one of the options.

Specifically, the following conditions apply:

  1. A majority of participating voters voted in favour
  2. At least 25% of all eligible voters voted in favour
  3. At least 35% of all eligible voters participated in the vote

The participation quorum refers to the minimum number of eligible voters who must participate in order for the referendum to be valid. This means that at least a certain percentage of eligible voters must turn up to vote in the election or referendum.

A valid referendum also requires that one of the options (e.g. ‘yes’ or ‘no’) must receive a majority of votes. If the result is a tie, or if neither option achieves the necessary majority, then the referendum is usually considered not to have taken place and no decision has been made.

Tip: The official board is an important element of public administration in the Czech Republic. It is no longer a bulletin board in the lobby of an office, but typically a digital panel or online portal where citizens can find out a lot of useful information. What information is published on the notice board and how can it be useful to ordinary citizens? This is the subject of our article.

Examples of referendums held

Referendums have already been held in some municipalities in the Czech Republic. However, none has yet been held at regional level.

At the local level, a number of popular votes have been held. However, some were not valid due to lack of participants.

In Litoměřice, citizens clearly expressed their opposition to the sale of the Litoměřice Hospital to a private entity. The town hall was considering the sale because it subsidized the hospital’s operations with many millions of crowns each year.

The referendum on the relocation of the main railway station in Brno was the target of many articles, posts and jokes. In it, citizens could express their opinion on whether they wished to modernise the Brno main railway station in its current location The referendum was not valid, however, because the required minimum turnout of eligible voters was not reached. At the same time, the city administration launched an internet poll on the topic of the new name of the station. Among the three successful proposals was the Járy Cimrman station. Surprisingly, the name Šalingrad won.

The residents of Prague 7 also joined the local referendum when they wanted to express their opposition to the allegedly overpriced construction of the new town hall. They voted to limit the investment to CZK 500 million. In addition, they ordered the district’s management to launch an architectural competition and a tender procedure that will favour construction on land owned by Prague 7.

An interesting development was the announcement of a referendum on a possible ban on gambling in Kladno. It was originally held together with the presidential election, however, the Regional Court in Prague declared the vote in the local referendum invalid due to illegal restrictions and influence of the campaign by the city, which was pushing its point of view in the campaign. In fact, the city’s leadership did not seek to ban, but at most to regulate the business in question. Subsequently, the city wanted to announce the referendum on a regular day (i.e. outside the election date), on 15 April 2023. However, two days before the referendum was to take place, the Regional Court in Prague ruled by a preliminary injunction that Kladno was obliged to refrain from organising and ensuring a repeat vote in the local referendum and ordered to combine its organisation with the election. By organising the referendum on a normal (non-election) day, there was a risk of a low turnout and thus the referendum being invalid.

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Author of the article

JUDr. Ondřej Preuss, Ph.D.

Ondřej is the attorney who came up with the idea of providing legal services online. He's been earning his living through legal services for more than 10 years. He especially likes to help clients who may have given up hope in solving their legal issues at work, for example with real estate transfers or copyright licenses.

Education
  • Law, Ph.D, Pf UK in Prague
  • Law, L’université Nancy-II, Nancy
  • Law, Master’s degree (Mgr.), Pf UK in Prague
  • International Territorial Studies (Bc.), FSV UK in Prague

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