In defense of referenda

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos votes in Oct. 2 referendum
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos votes in the referendum on his government’s peace agreement with FARC. The deal was rejected (source: dpa)

Many well-meaning people around the world – especially those in the media and politics – have been shocked by three referenda that have not brought the results they had hoped for.

The series started with Brexit. A slight majority in the United Kingdom voted, against the recommendation of their government and advice of European and world leaders, to exit the European Union.

In the second referendum, Hungarians voted to amend their constitution to block EU immigration settlement plans, against some rather strong requests from other European governments. The pressure included threats: Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said Hungary should be “excluded” from the bloc. The government-sponsored proposal was overwhelmingly accepted by those who voted. However, the turnout of just 40 percent made the result void under Hungary’s constitution.

The third plebiscite resulted in the people of Colombia rejecting – by a tiny majority – a peace agreement that the government negotiated with FARC rebels.

All three referenda were initiated by governments. The UK government wanted confirmation that the country should remain in the EU, while the Colombian government wanted its peace agreement sanctioned. Both failed.

Hungary’s case was different. The widely desired outcomes were for the proposals from the UK and Colombian governments to be approved, but for the Hungarian government’s proposal to be rejected. Just the contrary took place, although the Hungarian government failed to mobilize enough voters.

This has led many to question both the legitimacy of referenda in democracies and the system of direct democracy as such. Also, doubt has been cast on the people’s judgment when it comes to major issues.

The problem in most Western democracies is that citizens are frustrated – and they are using these votes to voice their dissatisfaction

It is true, as critics suggest, that in these three cases the governments’ main motive may have been to transfer responsibility for such decisions onto the people. However, the critics of referenda miss that the idea of direct democracy is not for governments to initiate such votes. Plebiscites usually bring excellent results if they are brought about by groups of concerned citizens. The problem in most Western democracies is that citizens are frustrated – and they are using these votes to voice their dissatisfaction.

A system of strong local autonomy and direct democracy using referenda initiated by citizens brings superior outcomes and normally shows the people’s sound judgment. Obviously, there must be a certain hurdle for such initiatives, such as a petition with a large number of authenticated signatures.

Switzerland has such a system, and it produces plenty of sensible decisions. For example, the Swiss voted by a big majority not to reduce time spent at work. They also rejected an initiative to increase the Swiss National Bank’s mandatory gold reserves.

In the United States, referenda do not play a role at the federal level. This reflects the fear of populism held by some of the framers of the constitution. They are also less necessary, because the main purpose of the constitution was to create a system of checks and balances and to provide for the protection of the freedom of the individual against the state.

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