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Serbian Lawmakers Pass Law Removing Turnout Threshold In Referendums

Several protests have been held in Belgrade against a draft bill on expropriations and the new law on referendums.
Several protests have been held in Belgrade against a draft bill on expropriations and the new law on referendums.

Serbia's parliament has overwhelmingly passed a law on how referendums are conducted amid criticism from opponents that it is undemocratic.

The new law on referendums was passed on November 25 with 178 deputies voting in favor and two against.

The law, together with another on expropriations due to be debated by parliament in the coming days, is contentious.

Opponents say the expropriation law may be used to advance mining projects that damage the environment, including China's Zijin copper mine and Rio Tinto's plans for a $2.4 billion lithium mine in western Serbia.

London-based Rio Tinto, the world's second-largest metals and mining company, is studying possible development of a lithium mine in Serbia, believed to be one of the largest in Europe.

The mine has the potential to generate significant export revenue and jobs for Serbia, especially if the country pursues plans to refine it locally and develop lithium-battery plants.

The law would allow for expedited expropriations of private property if it is considered to be in the public interest. In some areas where mining and infrastructure projects are planned, property owners have refused to sell their property and went to court, demanding higher compensation in legal proceedings that last for months.

President Aleksandar Vucic has denied the expropriation law was designed to enable Rio Tinto's project, arguing instead changes are needed to speed up infrastructure projects.

Serbian officials have previously said that a referendum would be organized for the Rio Tinto project.

The new referendum law, which is expected to be signed by Vucic, would remove the threshold for the number of voters needed for a referendum to pass. Until now, it was necessary for 50 percent of registered voters to turn out in order for a referendum to be considered valid.

"Due to the fact that the current law was passed in 1994, the new bill harmonizes the law with the constitution...and regulates all types of referendums," the government said after the bill passed parliament.

Opponents say removing the threshold nullifies the point of referendums as an element of direct democracy and undermines the intent of the constitution.

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