Ref­er­en­dums on re­spon­si­bil­ity: Michael Binyon on al­ter­na­tives to direct di­plo­macy and ac­count­abil­ity of politi­cians

Across the globe vot­ers have been re­ject­ing govern­ment ad­vice and us­ing their votes as a protest in ref­er­enda. Is there a way to change this?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Michael Binyon

Is there any­thing more demo­cratic than a ref­er­en­dum? It al­lows a govern­ment to con­sult the en­tire elec­torate on any ma­jor is­sue. It means that each cit­i­zen has a say on con­sti­tu­tional changes or de­ci­sions that will change a coun­try’s life. It pro­duces a re­sult that re­flects the pub­lic mood more clearly than any de­ci­sion taken by a small group of elected par­lia­men­tar­i­ans.

In fact, a ref­er­en­dum is far from demo­cratic. It can be used by pop­ulists and dic­ta­tors to de­stroy democ­racy. It is a blunt in­stru­ment that re­duces com­plex is­sues to a sim­ple “yes-no” ques­tion. It can paral­yse govern­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ing, and throw na­tional poli­cies off course. And, un­like par­lia­men­tary leg­is­la­tion, it is usu­ally ir­re­versible.

A ref­er­en­dum is a para­dox. It is in­creas­ingly be­ing used by gov­ern­ments re­luc­tant to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for ma­jor de­ci­sions to shirk their duty. But it often pro­duces re­sults that make it much more dif­fi­cult to deal with the out­come. The fact is that what­ever the ques­tion asked by a ref­er­en­dum, the an­swer is al­ways the same: a punch on the nose for the govern­ment. Vot­ers see ref­er­en­dums as a cost­free way of voic­ing protest, a wake-up call to ex­press gen­eral dis­con­tent and a chance for the have-nots to thumb their noses at the es­tab­lish­ment.

Three gov­ern­ments have re­cently found to their cost the dis­as­trous re­sult of en­trust­ing a ma­jor is­sue to a ref­er­en­dum: Bri­tain, Hun­gary and Colom­bia. In each case, the re­sult was the op­po­site of what had been ex­pected. In Bri­tain’s case, the ref­er­en­dum in June on con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union pro­duced a clear ma­jor­ity for Brexit – a Bri­tish exit from the EU. No one, in­clud­ing those lead­ing the cam­paign to leave, fore­saw the re­sult, and nei­ther govern­ment nor op­po­si­tion had any plan on what to do next. The ref­er­en­dum pro­duced the worst cri­sis in Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory for a gen­er­a­tion, led to the res­ig­na­tion of the prime min­is­ter, a sharp fall in the value of the cur­rency and mas­sive

un­cer­tainty over Bri­tain’s po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic fu­ture.

In Hun­gary, the right-wing govern­ment of Viktor Or­ban was hop­ing to use a ref­er­en­dum to per­suade vot­ers to en­dorse its tough line with Brus­sels on tak­ing in quo­tas of refugees. Or­ban re­ceived the en­dorse­ment he was seek­ing – with a vote of 98% re­ject­ing the loaded ques­tion “Do you agree that the Euro­pean Union should have the power to im­pose the set­tle­ment on non-Hun­gar­ian cit­i­zens in Hun­gary with­out the con­sent of the Na­tional As­sem­bly of Hun­gary?” But most vot­ers stayed at home, sens­ing per­haps that the vote was not re­ally about mi­grants but in­tended to strengthen him in his quar­rel with the EU. Be­cause of the low turnout, the ref­er­en­dum was in­valid – although the govern­ment pro­claimed it as a po­lit­i­cal and moral vic­tory.

In Colom­bia, the ref­er­en­dum on the peace deal with the Marx­ist FARC rebels pro­duced even greater con­ster­na­tion. The govern­ment of Juan Manuel San­tos has just spent the past four years ne­go­ti­at­ing a fi­nal end to the 50-year civil war and pro­duced a set­tle­ment that promised to open the way to peace, gen­eral dis­ar­ma­ment and the re-in­te­gra­tion of the for­mer guer­ril­las in Colom­bian so­ci­ety. A sign­ing cer­e­mony with the FARC leader was wit­nessed by the United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral and world lead­ers. And then, a few days later, the deal was put to the peo­ple in a ref­er­en­dum. They voted against it.

Colom­bians and out­siders were shocked. Did this mean a re­turn to war? Was the deal a step too far, es­pe­cially for those who be­lieved the rebel lead­ers should pay a price for the thou­sands they had kid­napped, tor­tured or killed? Could the re­sult be ig­nored and the peace deal go ahead any­way?

The fact is that across the globe vot­ers have been re­ject­ing govern­ment ad­vice and us­ing their votes as a protest. In the age of gen­eral po­lit­i­cal rage, direct democ­racy is a risk. It is only dic­ta­tors who can guar­an­tee the re­sult they want – and in­deed plebiscites were a favourite de­vice used by Hitler and Mus­solini to show the world that they had na­tion­wide sup­port. Af­ter the death of Pres­i­dent Hin­den­burg in 1934, Hitler held a ref­er­en­dum on the merger of the of­fices of chan­cel­lor and pres­i­dent, thus giv­ing him­self ab­so­lute power (un­sur­pris­ingly, some 90% voiced ap­proval). He also held fur­ther plebiscites af­ter re-oc­cu­py­ing the Rhineland in 1936 and the an­nex­a­tion of Aus­tria in 1938. Be­cause of their mis­use by the Nazis, plebiscites were banned in Ger­many af­ter the war.

Even in demo­cratic so­ci­eties, ref­er­en­dums are an un­re­li­able de­ci­sion-mak­ing ve­hi­cle. Vot­ers tend to use them as a re­cep­ta­cle for their griev­ances, as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime min­is­ter, found ear­lier this year. He held a ref­er­en­dum on the eco­nomic deal be­tween the EU and Ukraine. The treaty had been agreed by the govern­ment, rat­i­fied by all other EU states and was 2,135 pages long. The Dutch re­jected it, not be­cause they had read all the small print, but be­cause they were rail­ing against weak govern­ment, against EU dogma and against the east­ward ex­pan­sion of the union. Rutte called the re­sult “dis­as­trous”. Presi- dent Putin was de­lighted and called it a “truly demo­cratic act”.

By the end of the year there will have been eight ma­jor ref­er­en­dums. The next is Mat­teo Renzi’s at­tempt to se­cure back­ing for his re­forms in Italy. But the Ital­ian prime min­is­ter has found a solid coali­tion lin­ing up against him, largely put to­gether by am­bi­tious politi­cians try­ing to en­gi­neer his fall and their re­turn to power. If he loses in De­cem­ber, he will prob­a­bly lose of­fice, and Italy’s cru­cial eco­nomic re­forms will come to a halt.

Ref­er­en­dums can work in small democ­ra­cies with a tra­di­tion of con­sul­ta­tion. Switzer­land is the prime ex­am­ple. Ev­ery year vot­ers are asked their views on dozens of is­sues. It seems to work well – though it has en­cour­aged pop­ulists to take a hard line on is­sues such as im­mi­gra­tion. It works less well in larger states: Cal­i­for­nia at­taches “propo­si­tions” to its pres­i­den­tial and con­gres­sional elec­tions, and the re­sults often lead to con­fu­sion and paral­y­sis for the state govern­ment, which finds key poli­cies re­jected, es­pe­cially on taxes and spend­ing.

It is also clear that sen­si­tive so­cial ques­tions rarely win ap­proval if put to a ref­er­en­dum. No coun­try has held a ref­er­en­dum on the abo­li­tion of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, as it would al­most cer­tainly be lost. It would also cause big so­cial ten­sions if a ref­er­en­dum were held in Europe or Amer­ica on whether a halt should be placed on the build­ing of any more mosques; in the present cli­mate that too would be lost. And the pro­posal by the present Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter to hold a ref­er­en­dum on gay mar­riage, an is­sue that caused him con­sid­er­able dif­fi­culty dur­ing re­cent elec­tion cam­paign, sug­gests he is de­ter­mined it should fail.


If leg­is­la­tors run away from the de­ci­sions they are elected to take, they will find it hard to defy the re­sult of a vote put to the peo­ple. Some Bri­tish par­lia­men­tar­i­ans ar­gue that the Bri­tish par­lia­ment – which over­whelm­ingly sup­ports con­tin­ued mem­ber­ship of the Euro­pean Union – could ig­nore the Brexit vote and refuse to pass the leg­is­la­tion needed to leave the EU. But that would cause a po­lit­i­cal furore and has been ruled out by Theresa May’s govern­ment.

Some­times ref­er­en­dums can be re­versed by hold­ing another one. Ire­land and Den­mark both changed their views af­ter Euro­pean leg­is­la­tion was cos­met­i­cally changed to mol­lify op­po­nents and a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum was held. But this looks like a de­fi­ance of the peo­ple’s will. The moral, gov­ern­ments are be­gin­ning to re­alise, is do not hold a ref­er­en­dum if you can­not live with the re­sult. Far bet­ter to en­act leg­is­la­tion, and then see whether vot­ers sup­port it dur­ing a gen­eral elec­tion than risk a pro­ce­dure that can end up sub­vert­ing rather than en­hanc­ing democ­racy.

Not enough for vic­tory. Viktor Or­ban got the en­dorce­ment of those Hun­gar­i­ans who turned up to vote in his ref­er­en­dum against the EU's refugee quota pol­icy. But most vot­ers ig­nored the thing com­pletely

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