In light of the Brexit referendum, and in parallel with increasing demands for direct democracy, Antoine Arden looks into the tricky issue of referenda.

Referenda have had a complicated legacy and continue to do so today. They can achieve positive outcomes, such as helping countries gain independence. Yet, they have also allowed dictators to legitimise their conquests.

Switzerland, which prides itself in being a model direct democracy, has had a long and successful tradition of using referenda with over 400 since 1948. The Swiss go to the ballots several times a year and play an active role in deciding in which direction their country is heading – and it seems to work. The Swiss are not alone, Italy and Ireland also regularly put matters into the public’s hands to affect decision making.

Yet, referenda are also viewed more critically, especially since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Are referenda the way to go to decide complex issues? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

While direct democracy has a certain appeal, the other side of the coin is that most of us lack the expertise to make an informed decision about every single given topic. If citizens needed to decide on every single issue, we wouldn’t do anything else anymore, that is why we have representative democracy. Supporters of referenda say that voting every couple of years is not enough and political and social situations might change in between, therefore, citizens should have the possibility to make their voices heard.

And indeed, history also shows that referenda can have a positive impact and be indicatory. A not legally binding referendum can have great influence on the status quo and can stir up a country, without changing long-lasting laws or treaties overnight.

But this is exactly what happened with the Brexit referendum in the UK. The result and its consequences have turned into a widespread gnashing of teeth. 17 million Brits voted to leave, and are getting pretty angry about the constant delays and hurdles along the way. On the other side, the 16 or so million have grown increasingly unhappy about the alleged illegal activities of the leave campaign and other scandals.

Is it careless of politicians to put a referendum forward?

The aftermath of the Brexit referendum shows potential dangers of using the model of referenda to make binding decisions. The narrow margin of the result and the failure of imposing a threshold bring an added layer of complexity. This raises the questions on whether plebiscites are an effective tool for democracy and what sort of preparations are needed for citizens. Is it careless of politicians to put a referendum forward?

As we can’t have the knowledge necessary to understand every single issue, we need to consult others, from friends, family and the media to actual experts depending on the complexity. In particular, swing voters tend to make a decision 48 hours before an election. Any given piece of information during this time could be that crucial bit that tips one to a specific side, making the decision based on a very current situation, information and emotions.

With such a complex topic as the UK’s exit from the European Union, populist slogans and campaigns in general know how to sway voters’ emotions. It is far more effective and impactful to claim that the money going to Europe could be used differently for national issues than it is to get into the idea of the distribution of the EU budget. Furthermore, voters often use upcoming elections as a platform to make a statement about the current political situation, no matter the issue at hand.

As long as the issue and the consequences are clear and realistic, a referendum can strengthen democracy and give citizens a great way to be involved in politics. Vagueness and insufficient information is the harm of any referendum.

It could be argued that referenda are only useful in certain areas where the consequences are more tangible, such as in the realm of local or regional issues. Take the example of the Munich airport. The people of the city could vote on whether or not to add a third runway to the airport. Almost 55% voted against, rejecting the EUR 1.2 billion project. Another example is that in 2015, Berlin voters successfully forced the city of Berlin to hold a referendum to hinder plans to use the closed-down airfield ‘Tempelhof’ for commercial use. 64.3% of voters chose to keep Tempelhof as it is – a massive green space in the middle of Berlin, for sports, leisure and urban gardening. For local or regional issue, citizens can directly relate and the consequences are without a big political component. As long as the issue and the consequences are clear and realistic, a referendum can strengthen democracy and give citizens a great way to be involved in politics. Vagueness and insufficient information is the harm of any referendum.

Even the Swiss recently had to revoke a 2016 referendum on taxation. It was dismissed 3 years after by the Supreme Court which grounded their decision on the argument that voters were not given the full information. The ’incomplete’ information for the public thus ‘violated the freedom of the vote’, and a re-run is now on its way.

Could you argue the same happened with the Brexit referendum? It does not look likely, but the whole process so far was full of surprises, nothing seems impossible.

All in all, the key issue with any referendum is to ensure voters are able to make an informed decision. This can translate into limiting issues put to a public vote to certain topics, guaranteeing mechanisms to provide clear and reliable information – from proper information campaign to public debates and citizens’ assemblies – or thinking of new ways to re-invent direct democracy.

Cover photo: (Flickr); CC BY-SA 2.0

  • retro

    A Belgian-Australian born and raised in Rome. Fascinated by history, politics and all that involves debate.

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  • Fiona Jackson

    Fascinating article. The bit regarding the Swiss having to revoke a referendum is interesting, maybe there is still hope for Britain to do the same?

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