The Referendum – How much power to the people?

referendumTo hold a referendum seems to have become the newest way of externalizing difficult issues. For sure, there are countries with a long tradition of directly involving their citizens  with all kinds of issues, like accepting foreigners or not, raising taxes or not, or to add a train or not. In Switzerland, people are used to it, and one could make the point that the political system there may be flexible enough to digest it – though a while ago, the almighty people voted in favor of limiting the movement of EU citizens which produced a problem for the de-facto Swiss membership in the common market.

But otherwise, referenda are blossoming, and regardless of whether they create confusion or not, seem to be gaining in popularity. We do not have to mention the Brexit referendum that failed to meet the expectations of their organizers (and subsequently outed them from office), and the consequences of which the UK and EU officials now have to focus on for years to come. But there was however, one referendum on accepting a certain number of asylum seekers in the EU framework in Hungary (that equally failed), which will now be circumvented by the government. There was another referendum on the peace deal in Colombia a few days ago – that one failed too, and both government and the formerly armed opposition, FARC, now have to remedy the damage. In November, Italy will hold a referendum looking for the consent of the people to streamline their so-far awkward decision-making process which is predicted to probably fail as well. Let’s not forget the referenda on planned EU treaty revisions that went down: Ireland rejected Nice in 2001, Denmark and Sweden rejected Europe in 2000 and 2003,  France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution in 2005, and so on.

The question for this week is: Why on earth are sane politicians continuing to put complex issues in the hands of voters who decide by whatever criteria, but rarely on the substance of an issue?

– Prof. Klaus Segbers

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  1. Alexei Voskressenski 3 days ago

    Politicians are continuing to put complex issues in the hands of voters who in some difficult cases decide not on the substance of issues but on momentum, emotions, short-run perceptions etc. Politicians want a popular support for difficult decisions where the responsibility can be put on a side of collective others. This is another side of the blossoming populism even in democratic societies. It deconstructs a substance of political decisions. Democracy does not in all cases means all power to the people but a burden of unpopular political decisions can be sustained only by a popularly elected politician with political will, vision and wisdom. But even such a person can be wrong in some cases, and if such things occurs he steps down voluntarily or not, but through democratic procedures.

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  2. Justas Paleckis 3 days ago

    Let’s agree that Switzerland is a unique case. According to the traditional “Zauberformell” all the major parties work in the coalition and there is virtually no opposition. Therefore, there must be a balance and referendums (a couple of hundred years ago – men gathered in a market square) more or less successfully solved and solve the most important and not so important questions. In other countries, the constitutions oblige to pose some subjects in referendums (the best example – Ireland). And in most countries, referendums are announced by collecting a certain number of signatures or by the parliamentary decision. They are often used as a political weapon in the battles between parties. And that weapon successfully disrupts the democratic system which is going through a difficult time anyway. A voter does not really go deep into the essence of the referendum’s raised question or into its details. He just wants to punish the ones who are in power, the elite. Therefore a safety-net is invented: an increasing number of countries raise the bar for referendum to be declared valid. But it is hardly Madrid and London will conceive something to protect themselves from the impact of the Catalan and Scottish referendums for independence.

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  3. Stefan Engert 3 days ago

    Referenda are currently en vogue in Europe! And this is not a good sign (if you aren’t Swiss). They are en vogue because the representative or parliamentary democracy model is in a state of crisis: In Europe, the traditional big-tent parties (or Volksparteien) at the center, which usually attract the mainstream of the ordinary European middle class voter (e. g. the Christian-Democrat or Social Democrat catch-all parties), have all lost a substantial share of the vote to populist and Euro-sceptic movements on the far right (but also on the far left) in France, Italy, Germany, Austria, the UK, Hungary, and the Netherlands. Due to waning support already, governments and established political parties have become over-anxious to lose even more support. As a consequence, they increasingly rely on outsourcing fundamental decisions about unpopular topics (such as EU issues or the refugee question) to the people directly. Thus, what may look as a step towards more democracy, more inclusion, and more legitimacy in general, is rather a move towards avoiding responsibility for disliked decisions. Currently, referenda are rather crisis indicators than signs of democratic strength or self-assurance.

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  1. Arseniy Frolov 3 days ago

    From my point of view, the problem stems from the crisis of ideas, which was encountered by more or less all the political parties across the spectrum. Gaining votes took priority over creating future and critical approach to the state-of-affairs, parties cesed to be the chanels for creative ideas. Therefore they outsource the major decisions to the people, because a party itself does not have neither the firm position over a matter, nor the willingness to formulate one and be a subject of public dislike.
    This, partly, is the effect of centrist tendensies, which have been around for a while. Nowadays political parties try giving one-size-fit-all solutions to appeal to all social groups, meaning giving no solutions at all.
    Arseniy Frolov, GSR Alumni 2015

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  2. worldklaus 3 days ago

    Cause and effect have to be considered in historical context: January is the month I am eating less food, comparable with any other month, but there is nothing wrong with the month of January, it’s just the cause of over eating every December, with the effect of dieting every January. It’s an exaggeration that our model of democracy is in crises, as democracy in Europe is strong and deeply rooted in society. The current populism wave is just the counter wave of the previous free trade/liberalism movement. Free trade went to the extreme in the last 2 decades, with globalization scaring the Europeans, this is just the natural correction phase. So many distractions can cloud one’s view. Don’t get distracted by the referendum hype: the BREXIT referendum is not legally binding, and I am convinced any British Government will implement a “backdoor” before starting exit negotiations. Let’s also not get distracted by all the media noise, historical analysis has to conclude, that this is not a critical juncture for the development of the EU.

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