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Referendums cannot become a short cut to bypassing government and parliament, of choosing Frankenstein-like options which deepen disillusionment and, in the end, make very few people happy.
The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have intensified debates about the pros and cons of referendum initiatives. This comes at a time when perceptions of crisis in representative democracy and amendments to relevant EU directives which have simplified the process of successfully undertaking a referendum initiative.
Very often proponents of referendum initiatives highlight Switzerland as the gold standard to which society ought to aspire. Putting to one side Swiss specifics, for many Eastern European and certainly Southeast European countries, this is an unreachable ideal. If for no other reason, then because it is almost impossible to imagine the public sectors of the vast majority of these nations being able to, in a neutral manner, to set out the arguments for and against any initiative and to lay them out to the electorate in the way it is done in Switzerland. Our reality too often is of poorly conceived policy initiatives presented to parliament by the executive branch even though they have a public sector at their disposal whose main role is to create and implement policy initiatives.
Arguments for and against referendums
Arguments for referendum initiatives include giving the electorate an opportunity to express their views on specific issues and in the context of the EU, that referendums provide legitimacy to EU directives by allowing member state electorates to vote on them.
On the other hand, the Brexit referendum and indeed some Swiss initiatives show that referendums can, if not properly regulated, open the door to populism and even extremism as they give proponents of such initiatives a respectable platform to advance their views (often on single issues) and potentially undermine the foundations of the stability of representative democracy and mainstream politics. Apart from that, in the event of a low turnout, a motivated minority can impose its views, often because referendums morph into opportunities to express frustration at the government of the day, its polices or some of its members, little of which is related to the question at the heart of any such referendum.
The types of “referendum” issues even developed, and model democracies can have in recent times best been demonstrated in the UK. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on continued EU membership, the cradle of democracy has entered a period of unprecedented peace time political uncertainty because 52% of those who turned out, voted for the UK to leave the EU.
Not only did the referendum not help resolve an outstanding issue, it deepened the decades-long divisions in society on the issue of whether to remain a member of the EU. Because the referendum changed the nature of the debate, by moving it into the public domain rather than under the scrutiny of parliamentary debate and oversight, proponents of leaving found it easier to ignore the implications for the nation that this decision would necessarily entail. That is to say nothing of the rather evident differences between the expectations of proponents of leave and the realities of the UK’s position vis-à-vis the EU. Even worse, the aftermath of the referendum has brought into question the ability of British society, honed during hundreds of years of political stability, to respect and factor in alternative points of view, to seek common ground in efforts to resolve policy and other issues.
Referendums cannot be a substitute for representative democracy
That is why many political commentators are concerned about the state of British democracy. Unfortunately, many people, in Southeast Europe certainly, have not fully understood that differences of opinion are the reason politics exists. That the essence of democracy is not voting, but in developing norms where we agree to disagree, where those differences of opinion can be freely debated in order for society to develop the best possible solutions to open issues. We all know it is easy to be destructive and that presenting a constructive approach which gains the support of a majority is far more difficult. Direct democracy is not and cannot be a substitute for representative democracy, irrespective of how often parliamentary debate and procedure frustrate us.
That is the context of the debate in Western Europe. From the perspective of Eastern Europe, the story is more complex. Namely, the arguments outlined above remain pertinent, however, other issues arise when considering how to improve the concept of the referendum.
First, there is no point complaining simpler processes of undertaking referendums undermine the art of government. Such arguments risk provoking the electorate and unnecessarily expose policy makers to the risk of being labelled elitist. In a democracy, arguments need to be made and majorities won for points of view expressed.
Choosing only what we want risks a Frankenstein outcome
Increasing participation would evidently improve the stock of referendum initiatives. One way is mandatory participation, as in Australia, where I grew up, although this also not optimal. The best way would be for the electorate to be sufficiently aware and motivated to participate. This is precisely where the largest difference exists between more developed and the newer democracies of Eastern Europe. The issue is our responsibility towards society.
This principle is important to keep in mind because numerous referendum initiatives boil down to choosing what we would like without considering the implications of that choice. As an illustration, there is currently a referendum initiative “67 is too long” in Croatia which has gathered well over the roughly 375,000 signatures necessary for it to be formally considered by the government and parliament. Proponents of the initiative would like the government to reverse its policy of very gradually increasing the minimum retirement age from 65 to 67 years. To me, this is rather ironic as the government’s policy position allows us to become more like our Western European counterparts such as Denmark or Germany (and decide to work to 67), yet a not insignificant number of voters who often complain that we are not enough like Denmark or Germany, on this issue, prefer not to be so.
Proponents of lowering the retirement age will not link the fact that if a German employee goes into retirement two years later, that she will have paid two extra years of pension (and health) contributions, while, logically enjoying a pension for two years less. That a Croatian employee of the same age, retiring two years earlier, will have in fact have taken from their children and grandchildren four years of budget funds is either ignored, or, perhaps, more likely not even considered. Nor will proponents argue penalties for early retirement should be increased in order to fund the retirement of people at 65. At the same time, there is a never a meaningful proposal to reform the pensions of people who receive pensions under advantageous conditions, in order to fund a lower old age retirement threshold. There is no thought of society, nor of how to fund these requests.
This is not an argument to ban referendums, which are after all a part of every developed democracy. The focus should be on how to avoid the pitfall of referendums presenting options which we like, while ignoring the implications, often long-term, of policy decisions. Referendums cannot become a short cut to bypassing government and parliament, of choosing Frankenstein-like options which deepen disillusionment and, in the end, make very few people happy.