Judy Asks: Are Referenda Dangerous?
Rosa Balfour - Senior fellow in the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Little wisdom is to be found in the contemporary use of referenda. They are sold as tools of direct democracy to promote political participation among citizens who have turned away from politics. But in practice, they prize majoritarian conceptions of democracy at the expense of pluralist debate.
Ten years ago, political leaders would fudge unfavorable referendum results, such as the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, making a mockery of this instrument as a measure of citizens’ preferences. Today, referenda have become political tools for other ends. The June 23 UK referendum on EU membership was about a major divide in the ruling Conservative Party. The upcoming constitutional referendum in Italy was construed as a plebiscite on the government but is becoming a means to oust it. The supposedly consultative referendum on April 6 in the Netherlands that rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is blocking government policy, even if only a minority of eligible voters expressed their opinions. After the October 2 referendum in Hungary on migrant quotas, which did not reach the required turnout threshold, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is reiterating his illiberal policies.
Stephen Szabo - Executive director of the Transatlantic Academy
Referenda on foreign policy questions are dangerous because of the low levels of public knowledge about issues that are far removed from the day-to-day experiences of the vast majority of the population. These votes tend to have low turnouts and bring out the most committed parts of the public on the issue involved. As is often the case, the public follows elite cues on foreign policy, and questions in this area are low on the electoral agenda in almost all elections.
Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote eloquently on the responsibility of elected representatives to weigh up the interests of the electorate on issues on which competing priorities and values need to be balanced. If voters are unhappy with the results, they should replace their representatives rather than be asked to weigh in on issues beyond their own levels of competence.
Photo credit: Rama, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr