The rise of referendums in Western democracies and dictatorial regimes is often understood as an assertion of voters’ right to choose. Largely, the rise of referendums is equated with direct democracy — as citizens themselves take the charge to speak up politically and vote their preferences. The use of referendums in advanced democracies has been called as ‘unfreezing of alignments’ by Bogdanor. Bogdanor describes ‘unfreezing alignments’ as declining importance of social structural factors determining voting behavior which could be either influenced by religion, or caste. In this manner, the use of referendums suggests that representative institutions are being replaced by direct participatory mechanisms since the 1960s. According to Marco Goldoni, the rise of referendums throws light on ‘the limits and crisis of contemporary representative democracy’, in which voters see their leaders as out of touch with their lives and feelings. Often, referendums are used as by the politicians as a means for achieving a major political change or mission to do so.
Kinds of Referendums in European countries
Referendums are typified as mandatory and non-mandatory. The former are used as constitutional requirements on certain issues, while the non-mandatory ones are triggered only at political actors requests. It is crucial to understand that different forms of referendum have different consequences with respect to the influence exerted by different political actors in the decision making process. For instance, law controlling referendums function as a check on retrospective decision making of the parliament, mandatory referendums aid in multi-cameral decision making, abrogative and rejective referendums play a role in protecting the minorities. The abrogative referendums are generally deployed in circumstances when a particular decision has to be blocked. In case of adhoc and optimal referendums, the majority vote in the parliament is required to introduce it and it is generally in the hands of government and coalitions. The mandatory referendums function as devices for constitutional amendments while initiatives and non-mandatory referendums play a role of ‘policy maximizing’ initiatives.
In the context of Europe, the mandatory referendums have evolved in Denmark, Switzerland and Ireland. In all these states, referendum has been used for constitutional amendments. The use of mandatory referendums in Switzerland dates back to the year of foundation of Swiss federation in 1848. Ever since then, the referendums in Switzerland has been used on matters regarding membership in collective security organisations and supranational communities. Country wise– Switzerland has been the most proactive state to make use of referendums. Apart from Switzerland, Denmark and Italy have frequently made use of this direct participatory mechanism. France has often made use of optional referendums especially during President De Gualle’s rule in 1960s. In western Europe, the average use of referendums has increased from 2.6 in 1940s to 15.6 in 1990s. In case of Italy, the use of abrogative referendum in 1970 has prompted the use of constitutionally mandated referendums. For instance between 1980s and 90s Italy accounted more than half of the nation wide referendums held outside Western Europe outside Switzerland.
Integration issues have been crucial point for entering into the forum of direct democracy. Many European countries off late have witnessed referendums on the matters of integration into European community, formation of European union. The other significant issue is the protection of minority rights. Interestingly, the voters’ have dissented participating in integration matters, which only explains the difference of opinion among political elites and voters.
Referendum- A binary choice after all?
Although referendums have been in vogue ever since French and Russian revolutions. However, the misgivings of referendums is it often reduces the political questions into binary equations of yes or no. Oftentimes, they have been used as instruments allowing populists to fan their fears, exercise populist measures and policies, distort realistis and appeal to emotions. In the contemporary times, referendums have been deployed in Hungary regarding refugee and migrant matters, EU referendum in Britain, one about peace deal to end the country’s 50 year old armed rebellion in Columbia and Italy’s vote on constitutional reforms.
In case of Hungary, the Hungarian Prime Minister namely Viktor Orban failed to convince the majority of population to come and vote in the referendum to close the door for refugees. Although more than 98% voted to out the refugees and migrants, however, abstinence on the part of rest of electorate rendering the voting constitutionally null and void. From direct democracy perspective, as Orban said, “a valid [referendum] is always better than an invalid [referendum]”. Critics have argued that referendum was a diversion from the failure of his domestic policies, and a lot of funds were spent in conducting referendum, on advertising a toxic campaign against the immigrants. The referendums such as these have raised important questions regarding the xenophobia and racism prevalent in Europe and the larger debates of inclusion and accommodation of different groups. The discrimination faced by the refugees is quite frequently compared with the holocaust in Germany and stigmatization faced by the Jews. Zsuzsanna Vajna, a 79-year-old Holocaust survivor, quotes to The Guardian, “In the 1930s, we were in a very bad economic situation. People had to be blamed, and then it was the Jews. And that’s what I’m reminded of when I read the Hungarian government’s propaganda. It’s very dangerous. Because it can contaminate all of Europe.”
In case of Brexit as well, the prevalence of anti-immigrant prejudice decided the voter turnout and the final decision to exit the European Union. An investigation by The Independent reveals an upsurge in hate crimes against the immigrants in post Brexit era. According to this study, “Kent, which recorded a majority Leave vote of nearly 60 per cent, recorded 16 ethnic and religious hate crimes in the 2015 week corresponding to the referendum. This increased to 25 the week of the EU referendum and surged further to 39 the following week – up by 143 per cent.”
The EU referendum has been a matter of debate concerning the discrimination and prejudice meted out to immigrants. The glorification of referendum as a direct democracy device is not necessarily a political question of recognizing rights, inclusion, and democratic consensus. If direct democracy is about assimilating diversities, and question of ‘recognition’, then certain groups are always in a vulnerable position. Further, referendum being a device of direct democracy provides for voters’ discretion to choose for themselves. Hungary and Britain’s Brexit can juxtaposed against each other as cases of political consciousness among the voters’, the element of ‘empathy’ among the citizenry. Hannah Arendt in her theory on ‘banality of evil’ argues that humans as thinking beings would know what they are choosing, ‘thinking’ as a creative process is a dialogue with oneself. In her theory, she explains holocaust against Jews in Germany was the result of humans who were non-thinking beings, for them they were merely doing their duties by abiding the dictates of Hitler. The citizenry being thinking beings can have dialogue with oneself, initiate a democratic among themselves and recognize the needs of inclusion just like Hungarians did.
This piece is written by Manisha Chachra. Manisha is Associate Researcher at Govern.