Slovakia: Nationalists want referendum against minority languages
The nationalist Slovak National Party (Slovenská národní strana - SNS) wants a referendum to be held that would make Slovak the country's only official language. Some lawyers are warning that such a vote would contravene the Constitution, which makes it possible for members of minorities to speak their native language with the authorities. The SNS needs to get at least 350 000 signatures in the country of five million in order for a referendum to be held. The nationalists are starting their campaign to win support for such a referendum in southern Slovakia today, where many members of the Hungarian minority live.
The petition action by the opposition SNS is in response to a government-proposed amendment to relax the rules on the use of minority languages. Currently members of minorities may use their native language only with officials in municipalities where they constitute one-fifth of the residents. The amendment would reduce the necessary proportion to 15 %, which would make it possible for members of the Czech minority in the small south Slovakian municipality of Macov to speak Czech at the local town hall.
The Slovak Parliament has started discussing the amendment, but its definitive approval is not yet certain. Some governing coalition MPs take exception to the relaxation of conditions, which would mainly help the Ruthenian minority living in the east of the country. The Hungarian minority, which numbers roughly one-tenth of the country's population, would not be significantly aided by the proposed relaxation.
Some lawyers have criticized the SNS effort to establish Slovak as the country's only official language, warning that the Constitution bans the holding of any referendum on fundamental rights and freedoms. The right of members of a minority to use their native language during official business is protected by law. However, nationalist leader Ján Slota rejects the lawyers' critique.
Prior to any referendum being announced, Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič could turn to the Constitutional Court to decide whether the referendum question is constitutional. If such a vote were to eventually be held, it could also founder due to low voter turnout, as the Constitution requires more than half of the electorate to participate in any referendum in order for it to be valid. This has only succeeded once in the history of the country, when a referendum was held on Slovakia's entry into the European Union. Most recently, a referendum held last year on a proposal to restrict MPs' immunity from prosecution failed due to low voter turnout.