A Democrat Visits Prague
A delegation of MPs from Germany was in Prague for a few days last week to discuss a variety of matters, and, during the visit, they made some fascinating comments concerning the possibility of a referendum on NATO in the Czech Republic. While everyone rejected the absurd idea of a post-ratification referendum, the leader of that delegation, Foreign Affairs Spokesman of the German Social Democratic Party Guenter Verheugen expressed a clear surprise at the great fuss (rozruch) the issue had caused in the Czech Republic. He didn't see any problem in principle with a referendum.
You may say that he was just supporting his colleagues in CSSD, but from his words it is clear that Verheugen actually understands the issue much better than most politicians and political analysts in the CR.
Verheugen saw no reason to reject a referendum. His justification was simple and logical. He felt that in such a fundamental and existential matter as a military alliance, it would only be normal for the political representatives to turn to the citizens directly and formally ask the country how it felt.
The citizens of the Czech Republic are clearly in agreement with Verheugen. Recent poll results issued by STEM (via CTK) on 17.3.98 showed that the Czech public wants a referendum on the issue. 59% of those surveyed said they wanted a referendum on NATO entry, and 70% said they would take part in such a referendum if it were to take place.
Of course, it is all academic what the people want, because the establishment decided long ago that it could not rely on the people to return the decision the elites wanted, and forces were rallied against the very idea of a referendum. Zeman, after blowing hot and cold over a nonsensical post-ratification referendum for a few days, finally laid the referendum idea to rest under publicly embarrassing pressure from the Hrad (CTK 19.3.98).
It is notable that while the widest possible cross-section of the Czech establishment denied a referendum to the citizens of the Czech Republic, because it was felt that the people could not be trusted to "vote correctly", Verheugen's opinion was quite the opposite. Verheugen said he was completely confident that the Czech Republic would, if given the chance, return a positive vote for NATO. Recent poll results suggest that Verheugen is well-informed about popular sentiments in the Czech Republic as about 60% recently said they would vote yes to NATO.
Verheugen's statements, I believe, are neither simply the posturing of a visiting politician nor just a polite expression of confidence in the people of the Czech Republic. Verheugen's words are actually an expression of confidence in the democratic process itself.
Verheugen, like the majority of citizens of the Czech Republic, believes the people should decide such an important issue. Political leaders can try to convince the public, but in the end, this matter is so important, that the public must show that they are behind it for it to have the legitimacy it will need in future crises. Verheugen understands that citizens are the foundation of a democracy, and he shows his confidence in that foundation. Too bad there's not such confidence in democracy in Prague.