Constitution referendum debate moves to parliament

A session of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies on 12 October 2021 Library photo: Romain Gamba / Maison Moderne

A session of Luxembourg’s Chamber of Deputies on 12 October 2021 Library photo: Romain Gamba / Maison Moderne

A public petition to hold a referendum on Luxembourg’s constitution reached more than 18,000 signatures this week, meaning it will be debated in parliament, while a second procedure to trigger a public vote is also ongoing.

The public petition already in mid-October reached the 4,500 signatures required for a debate to take place with lawmakers and government representatives. The final tally of 18,579 names on 8 November needs to be checked for duplicates or invalid signatures.

But the document failed to receive 25,000 signatures required for Luxembourg’s biggest opposition party, the CSV, to throw its weight behind the initiative. The party last month had said that it would back a referendum if enough voters demanded it.

Members of parliament can force a referendum if 16 lawmakers formally petition the government. The CSV is the only party in parliament that has enough seats to single-handedly do so.

Reform split into four chapters

The reform of the grand duchy’s 150-year-old constitution has been ongoing for more than a decade and hit a snag in 2019 when lawmakers decided to shelve a comprehensive new text--which was set to be put to a public vote--and opted for a piecemeal update of the existing constitution instead.

The reform is split into four chapters--justice, organisation of the state, rights and liberties, and Chamber of Deputies and Council of State. While the government parties--the DP, LSAP and Déi Gréng--committed to a referendum during the 2018 elections, they abandoned the idea when the update was split up into these different chapters.

The Chamber of Deputies on 20 October passed the justice chapter in a first vote. A second vote is needed for the text to be finally adopted.

Citizens’ initiative

At the same time a citizens’ initiative kicked off a procedure to hold a referendum. Under Luxembourg law, voters can request a referendum on changes to the constitution up to two weeks after the first vote in parliament has taken place. At least five voters need to make the joint request.

Prime minister Xavier Bettel (DP) on 28 October said the citizens’ initiative is admissible under Luxembourg law. At least 25,000 voters must sign their name at their commune between 19 November and 20 December to demand a public ballot.

This would trigger a referendum on the first chapter of the reform voted by parliament in October. The same process would have to take place for the other three chapters.

Even if this process fails, the debate in parliament prompted by the public petition could yet yield results if enough MPs line up to support the call for a referendum.

The reform of the constitution includes new provisions on the separation of powers, the role of the grand duke, the justice system, rights of children and animal rights, and academic freedom, among other topics.

Previous updates of the constitution include the abolition of the death penalty in 1971 or the introduction of universal suffrage in 1919.