The age of Referendums



23, Jan 2017

Brexit started it. Then there was Grexit. And now there are talks of Frexit, Nexit, even a Sexit. This is the age when politicians across Europe are turning important questions over to direct popular vote. The questions are around exiting supernational organizations like EU and NATO or social experiments like Universal Basic Income. These referendums are presented as the ultimate democratic tool. However, quite often they offer more questions than answers.

What has brought ‘referendum’ in the news again?

Enter Frexit

  • Frexit: Marine Le Pen, far-right candidate for the 2017 presidential elections in France, told - "Frexit will be a part of my policy. The people must have the opportunity to vote for the liberation from slavery and blackmail imposed by technocrats in Brussels (European Union) to return sovereignty to the country."
  • Referendum to exit NATO: She said she will also hold a Brexit-style referendum to exit NATO as it exists only "to serve Washington’s objectives and its existence is no longer needed". She has called for closer ties with Russia and has criticized NATO expansion into Eastern Europe.
  • On NATO: "It was established when there was a risk from the Warsaw Pact and the expansionism of the communist Soviet Union (SU). Now, the SU no longer exists, and neither does the Warsaw Pact. Washington maintains the NATO presence to serve its objectives in Europe."
  • Eurosceptic views: She is well known for her Euroscepticism and anti-immigrant views. She also suggested that Portugal, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus should also leave EU. She supported measures to restrict the flow of asylum seekers into Europe.

Referendum on Universal Basic Income (UBI): Rejected by Swiss voters

  • Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal to introduce a guaranteed basic income for all. In this referendum, 77% opposed the plan, with only 23% backing it.
  • What is UBI This proposal is about all adults being paid an unconditional monthly income, whether they work or not. The supporters argue that since work was increasingly automated, fewer jobs were available for workers.Switzerland is the first country to hold such a vote.
  • Experts view: Economist Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, expressed optimism about unconditional basic income. He called the idea “basically plausible” and predicted that discussion about it would develop over the next decade.
  • UBI experiment: Finland launched an experiment in 2017 to address joblessness with basic income, and the Netherlands is also attempting small-scale trials. A Silicon Valley startup, Y-Combinator, plans to launch a basic income experiment in Oakland, California, this year.
  • These experiments and more referendums to come up about UBI would increase because futurists see UBI as the solution to the automation problem, when robots eliminate all of the human jobs.

Current usage of Referendums:

  • Nowadays, political elite in many democracies feel that promising a referendum could get them elected. And this trend can be observed right now in France and the Netherlands – where populist right-wingers are busy promising referendums.
  • Referendum – a poll promise: Marine Le Pen has promised voters an EU referendum on "Frexit" if she wins the Presidency this year.Geert Wilders of the far-right Dutch Freedom party in the Netherlands, an Islamophobic party, has reframed Donald Trump's election slogan as "Make The Netherlands Great Again" and promised a referendum on Dutch EU membership if he is elected prime minister in March.

What is a referendum It is an instrument of direct democracy where citizens directly vote on specific and important issues as opposed to representative democracy where the elected representative will make a choice on citizens’ behalf.

Why are referendums often considered undemocratic?

One has to observe that referendums are democratic tools in the hands of citizens to make the government serve them in the best of their interests.

  • Though referendums are portrayed as popular governance in its purest form, studies have found that they often subvert democracy rather than serve it. The worldwide experiences show that referendums are vulnerable to a number of serious flaws and governments should think more than twice before offering them.
  • Political analysts opine that most of the recent referendums took the form of "extreme democracy” - the majority of people voted against their best interests, for example: Brexit will weaken Britain’s economy and its ability to influence the world, Thailand’s democracy has been weakened etc.

Following are the reasons why referendums might turn anti-democratic:

Popular participation is usually less than General Elections:

  • Studies reveal that a Referendum usually sees lower turnout than general elections. With lower turnouts than general elections, how democratic is it to consider the referendum verdict as popular voice
  • It is biased towards the more energized groups: This means that despite their resemblance to direct democracy in action, referendum results often depend less on the true balance of public opinion and more on which side has the more energized supporters.
  • To address this problem of lower turnouts, some countries require turnout thresholds. But these thresholds are also problematic because they are arbitrary, encourage nonparticipation for those who oppose a measure and can make interpreting results difficult.
  • Cases-in-point: An April 2016 Italy referendum on offshore drilling and a February 2015 Slovakia referendum on banning same-sex marriage failed to drum up enough voters to pass. Nobody knows how many stayed home out of apathy, and how many out of strategy.

Binary is not always the best: It leads to confusion

  • Simple to answer but difficult to understand: The irony of a referendum is that – while it is to choose - “yes” or “no”, the policy issues at stake are complex. Even the wording of the question on the ballot is often technical. While the campaigning happens, the voters are bombarded with information. People usually follow the psychological rule - “If you don’t know, vote no”, while voting during confusion. It would be too difficult to understand what the voters have understood about the question under vote, what is the intention behind choosing one of the 2 options given or did the complex ballot wording leave the meaning too open to voters’ interpretation
  • Also, the binaries are not always the best because they are like the Bush doctrine - you’re either with us or you’re against us (and probably a terrorist).
  • People resort to “short cuts”: When a referendum is put forward by the government, people often vote in support if they like the leadership and vote in opposition if they dislike it. A vote that is supposed to be about an important public issue ends up being about the popularity or unpopularity of a particular party or leader, the performance of the government, or some set of issues or events that are not related to the subject of the referendum. For example - In Colombia most regions that voted for President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014, also voted for the peace deal, and vice versa.
  • Case-in-point: A Constitutional referendum on gender equality in the Bahamas provides example of similar confusion while voting. During the campaign phase, rumors spread that voting “yes” could lead to same-sex marriage, even though the issues on the ballot were only about gender equality and its role in citizenship rights.By Election Day, many were not voting on whether they supported equal rights for men and women, but whether they supported same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. Ultimately, 79 percent voted against the gender nondiscrimination bill.

Since when are the referendums being used?

  • History: The history of the referendum goes all the way back to Roman times. A Roman historian Tacitus wrote – “On the small matters the governors decide, on important matters the people do.”
  • Origins of the name: The name and use of “referendum” is thought to have originated in the Swiss canton of Graubünden as early as the 16th century, but their rise to common usage has more to do with the 1980s.
  • Rationale: From a political-philosophical perspective, referendums are an expression of direct democracy. However, in the modern world, most referendums need to be understood within the context of representative democracy. Therefore, they tend to be used quite selectively, covering issues such as changes in voting systems, where currently elected officials may not have the legitimacy or inclination to implement such changes.
  • Authoritarian usage in the past: In 1934, Hitler held a referendum on whether he could consolidate the power of the President and the Chancellor, a job he already held, into the new role of Fuhrer, and won overwhelming approval. From Mussolini to Saddam Hussein, authoritarian rulers have used referendums to justify their grip on power by showing that “the people” support them.
  • Events in the last year: Citizens rejected Colombia’s peace deal, voted for Brexit (to split Britain from the European Union), supported a Thai Constitution which is anti-democratic - giving the military a larger role, voted against Italians constitutional reforms and, in Hungary, backed the government’s plan to restrict refugees, but without the necessary turnout for a valid result.
  • Referendums to look out for: Six more countries also want to hold referendums to exit the EU - France, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Finland, and Hungary.

Difference between Referendum, Initiative and Proposition

  • A proposition is a blanket term for any ballot measure to be voted on by the people – this can be an initiative or a referendum.
  • A referendum is when the voters decide to approve or reject an existing law. There are two different ways this can occur: one, if there is already a law in place, the voters attempt to repeal the law; and two, if the legislature decides to not vote on the measure and places it on the ballot for voter consideration. This makes it different to an election, where the electorate votes for a representative, and where the result might change the government.
  • An initiative is a brand new law or constitutional amendment proposed and voted by the people. It is a law started by the people. It is a referendum which is called for by the electorate. As the name suggests - the electorate “takes the initiative”, not the legislative. Usually, a certain number of signatures have to be obtained on a petition to authorize an initiative.

Where are the other criticisms on referendums?

In the recent referendums, though voters overturned their governments’ plans, eroded their own rights and ignited political crises, they all accomplished one thing:they demonstrated why many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous.

Some of the other criticisms on referendums are as follows:

It is deceptively simple. In fact, it is quite complex.

  • Forces voters to rely on political messaging: These referendums can be extremely volatile, driven by factors unrelated to the issue’s merits and outside anyone’s control. This is because voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging — which (again) puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters.
  • They are weather dependent The referendum held in Colombia on the government’s landmark peace deal with the rebel group FARC was greatly impacted because of hurricane weather conditions in parts of the country. The deal was rejected by the voters. In that weather, they were more likely to say no.
  • Democracy can still survive even if referendum fails: The Colombian peace deal with FARC is a prime example of where democracy (representative) can succeed when referendums fail. The historic peace accord was initially put to a national referendum by President Santos (who won the Nobel Peace Prize 2016 for the accord). With 38% turnout, the vote failed. But Santos returned to the negotiation table with a revised peace deal. The new agreement, largely reflective of the original deal, skipped a second referendum and was sent to the Colombian Congress, where it was easily passed.

Closed questions and the separability problem

  • Some critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty which can plague a referendum of two issues or more is called the separability problem.If one issue is in fact, or in perception, related to another on the ballot, the imposed simultaneous voting of first preference on each issue can result in an outcome that is displeasing to most.

Driven by emotions rather than consequences

  • Many a time, the result reflects that votes were less about the actual policy question than about contests between abstract values and emotions attached to a particular opinion.
  • Case-in-point: During “Brexit” campaign, neither side emphasized the specifics of membership in the bloc. The “Remain” campaign presented membership as a matter of economic stability. The “Leave” campaign emphasized on immigration. And people who voted to remain expressed great concern about the economy, but not much about immigrants. People who voted to leave said they were very concerned about immigration, and less so about the economy.

Based on unrealistic assumptions

  • Not united but divided: Referendums are associated with a romantic tradition of thinking of ‘the people’ as a single united entity. The truth is - the people are usually deeply divided.
  • More indifferent than responsible: Holding referendums assumes that the public is passionate about political and social issues. This practice assumes that every citizen is responsible. But it doesn’t take into account that the people are frequently indifferent. In general, a large portion of the public has a greater sense of balance about what is important in their lives than these issues.

Misused by dictators

Some opposition to the referendum has arisen from its use by dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini who used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism.

  • Dictators may also make use of referendums to further legitimize their authority; examples include Benito Mussolini in 1934, Adolf Hitler in 1936, Ferdinand Marcos in 1973, Park Chung-hee in 1972 and Francisco Franco in 1947.
  • Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued as the reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.

Also, the practice of referendums is criticized for being a cruel waste of time on a process that does not address the issue completely, diverts attention from other urgent problems and is usually a “Russian roulette for republics”. One just has to look at the United Kingdom to appreciate just how messy the results of a referendum can get. The nation is set to be locked in with Brexit results for the next many years.

Who said what on referendums?

  • Margaret Thatcher, in a debate over Britain’s place in the EU in 1975, argued that referendums are "a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators".
  • James Madison argued that direct democracy is the "tyranny of the majority".
  • Michael Marsh, a political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, when asked whether referendums were a good idea, said, “The simple answer is almost never. I’ve watched many of these in Ireland, and they really range from the pointless to the dangerous.”
  • Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called on EU leaders to stop holding referendums on domestic issues, saying that it is a threat to the future of the EU and its currency. Matthew Goodwin, Associate Professor at University of Nottingham, however, says – “Calls to stop referendums signal the democratic deficit of the EU.
  • Also, according to several studies conducted it is observed that whenever there is a referendum in almost any EU state on a topic to do with EU integration they vote against the EU.
  • Growth of nationalist political parties: One of the key developments in European politics is growing support for openly nationalist political parties that want to offer referendums in many cases like – on the issue of EU membership, or the Euro single currency, return more power to the nation-state by taking away from the EU. These developments are further strengthened by the vote for Brexit and by the election of Donald Trump in the US.

Who have used referendums the most

  • Referendums by country: Since the end of the 18th century, hundreds of national referendums have been organized in the world. Almost 600 national votes were held in Switzerland since its inauguration as a modern state in 1848.Australia ranks second with dozens of referendums.

Is it always a binary vote A referendum usually offers the electorate a choice of accepting or rejecting a proposal, but this is not necessarily the case.

  • In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common. Two multiple choice referendums held in Sweden, in 1957 and in 1980, offered voters three options; in 1977, a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters had four choices; and in 1992, New Zealand held a five-option referendum on their electoral system.
  • Challenges: A multiple choice referendum poses the question of how the result is to be determined if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (more than half) of voters. There are different approaches adopted by different nations to deal with this challenge.

How relevant are referendums in the Indian context?

  • India and referendums: One significant observation is that India, unlike Europe, doesn’t take chances. Referendums were called only when the result was known. The Indian subcontinent has actually seen six referendums, with one pending referendum in Kashmir.
  • When Sylhet, Junagadh and North Western Frontier Province referendums were held in 1947 as British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Referendums have also been held in Sikkim and Pondicherry to decide if they wanted to be a part of India. In 1967, Goa voted to not be included in Maharashtra, establishing their Konkani identity as distinct from Marathi.

The case of Kashmir and ground reality:

  • Instrument of Accession: Maharaja Hari Singh, during the time of India’s Independence, chose to keep Kashmir independent. However, when Pakistan sent ‘tribals’ to annex Kashmir, the king asked India for help. India extended help on the condition that the king signs a treaty/instrument of accession, which he promptly did. This treaty/instrument of accession entails that the Indian government will intervene in matters of defense, communication, foreign affairs and other ancillary terms, while the state will still hold power over the governance of the valley.

When can a plebiscite be conducted

  • Withdrawal of Pakistani troops: According to the Treaty of Accession and the UN Resolution of 1948, the first condition for a plebiscite to be conducted is that Pakistan should withdraw its troops and its nationals who have entered J&K for the purpose of fighting and not for residing in the territory. Once the above condition has been established, Indian government should reduce its forces to the minimum strength, as required to maintain law and order.

Change in demographics

  • There have been several changes made to the demographics of the State of J&K since 1948. India has always respected the sanctity of demographics in Kashmir through Article 370 in India’s Constitution.
  • The only change in the demographics of Kashmir was the one that came in 1990’s when Pakistan sponsored Muslim radicals inflicted violence and drove away 300,000 Hindus (the Kashmiri Pandits) out of Kashmir, in order to make the area a Muslim dominant region.
  • In this backdrop, for a fair plebiscite to be conducted, pre-1948 demographics need to be restored. This requires that the non-Kashmiris be moved out of Pakistan occupied Kashmir and the Kashmiri Hindus should be brought back into Kashmir.
  • According to the Treaty/Instrument of Accession, a plebiscite in Kashmir can only be carried out after the withdrawal of forces, of Pakistan and then of India. Since both India and Pakistan troops are present in the region, the possibility of a plebiscite is not seen anytime soon.

The emerging Indian needs

Strengthening of representative institutions, the separation of powers, and increased participation in elections are good signs of a strong democracy, which India is enjoying now.

  • But how many of its citizens are aware of the implications of the legislations being made on their names indirectly Should they search for other tools that make Indian democracy more accountable, participatory and deliberative The answer definitely would be in affirmative. Tools like referendums could be considered to increase the participation of citizens in the governance.
  • But given the level of awareness majority of the citizens have, there is still a lot of time for such options to come into action. Before that, India should focus on raising the awareness of its people and make sure the elections are conducted in a free and fair manner with increased participation levels.

For in-depth analysis of many such topics, download Knappily.  KNAPPILY is a must-have app for anyone who wants to know more, to know better and to know faster.

Tags | Brexit EU Frexit Grexit Nexit Referendums Sexit