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What’s so controversial about referendums?

WGS001B11 Why are referendums controversial Shutterstock 736791967
WGS001B11 Why are referendums controversial Shutterstock 736791967

Anyone in any doubt about the disruptive power of the referendum need only look to Europe’s recent experience.

 

Just over a year after the UK voted to leave the European Union at the end of a hard fought and controversial referendum, Spain was dealing with the fallout from its own bitterly contested vote.

 

In Catalonia, 92% of those who took part in a referendum wanted the state to become a republic.

 

The 1 October 2017 vote, despite having been declared illegal by Spain’s national parliament, took place under rules designed to circumvent the checks and balances that aimed to ensure a fair result.

 

These included the Catalonian executive voting illegally to accept a simple majority rather than the two-thirds of voters usually required to ensure sweeping changes, and led to rows about how representative of Catalonian feeling the result was.

 

Meanwhile, policy makers around the globe looking to directly involve the public in decision making are left wondering if referendums really are the answer to their problems.

 

Demagogues and dictators

 

Political scientists Arthur Lupia and Mathew D McCubbins warn in their book, The Democratic Dilemma, that there is a mismatch between the needs and requirements of a democracy and the ability of the people to meet them.

 

“People who are called upon to make reasoned choices might not be capable of doing so,” they say, adding: “this ignorance can allow people of ‘sinister designs’ to deceive and betray the uninformed”.

 

Voters, they argue, follow trusted authority figures, or fit their choices within a familiar narrative.

 

An additional referendum risk, as Lawrence LeDuc of the University of Toronto University said in a 2015 paper, is that: “A vote that is supposed to be about an important public issue ends up instead being about the popularity or unpopularity of a particular party or leader, the record of the government, or some set of issues or events that are not related to the subject of the referendum.”

 

As former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee said when describing how Hitler and Mussolini had used such plebiscites to win popular endorsements, referendums are “a device of dictators and demagogues”.

 

Easy answer, difficult question

 

Experts say referendums are often called by politicians who seek backing for courses of action they have already decided on. But voters often have a different idea.

 

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold an EU referendum with a single “in/out” question to be decided by a simple majority. The vote was called partly to keep his party’s own Eurosceptics quiet and partly to see off the growing popularity of the right-wing UK Independence Party.

 

Cameron himself was clear that Britain should remain in Europe.

 

But discussions during the campaign focused little on the complex nature of Britain’s relationship with Europe or what might happen if the country voted to leave the union.

 

Instead, debate hinged on emotive immigration issues and matters that frequently had little or nothing directly to do with the UK’s EU membership.

 

Keep it simple

 

Mike Berry, a lecturer at Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, says: “Leave campaigners employed a classic KISS [keep it simple, stupid] strategy. They concentrated on a simple message – ‘Take Back Control’ – which was repeated at every opportunity. The message was effective because it was both easily understood by different social groups and open to multiple interpretations.”

 

The Remain camp was simply unable to launch a successful counter narrative in response.

 

The people have spoken… but what did they say?

Switzerland, which has 8.2 million citizens, operates a "direct" democracy, a legal framework that allows everyone over 18 to vote on how the country is run.

 

Votes on constitutional changes are mandatory, and need to be supported by both a majority of the electorate and a majority of administrative districts, called cantons.

 

But even normally quiet Switzerland has produced some controversial results, including a 2014 move to limit migrant numbers.  It was followed by a 2016 law that guaranteed freedom of movement for EU citizens, without which trade deals could have collapsed.

 

Some countries have been accused of having referendums until the public delivers the ‘right’ result: in June 1992 Denmark rejected the EU’s Maastricht Treaty in a referendum but changed its mind a year later after securing changes, while Ireland’s repudiation of the Lisbon treaty in 2005 won approval in 2006 after concessions.

 

More referendums?

The notion that referendums give power to the people is unlikely to go away.

 

But in democracies politicians cannot control the debate and will always be taking a risk with a popular vote.

 

Referendums also risk the “demagogue and dictator” factor of charismatic rivals who build campaigns around empty slogans.

 

But this is not deterring leaders. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has said he may use them while Ireland is to hold a public vote on legal abortion in 2018.

 

Referendums are risky, but they will always hold a fascination for politicians who hope to get a stamp of approval for policy decisions with which opponents are unable to argue.