The referendum: populism vs democracy

George Schöpflin
16 June 2008

The result of the Republic of Ireland's referendum on 12 June 2008, a rejection of the European Union's "reform treaty" agreed at the Lisbon summit in October 2007, has precipitated a crisis for the union whose resolution is hard to foresee. For the victorious "no" side, and for those elsewhere who support the use of referenda to decide on constitutional or other matters, the outcome in Ireland is also on three grounds a vindication of the institution of the referendum:

▪ it restores democracy to the people

▪ it allows the people to tell political elites to be responsive

▪ it restores "the people's will" to the storehouse of democratic instruments.

These propositions - which can be summarised as the seduction of direct democracy - are misconceived. The championing of referenda they embody proceeds from a series of four untenable assumptions, which are worth itemising in some detail.

George Schőpflin is a member of the European parliament for Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Union) and was Jean Monnet professor of politics at University College London.

Also by George Schőpflin in openDemocracy:

"Israel-Lebanon: a battle over modernity" (8 August 2005)

"Putin's anti-globalisation strategy" (10 July 2006)

"Hungary: country without consequences" (22 September 2006)

"Hungary's cold civil war" (14 November 2006)

"The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

"Russia's reinvented empire"
(3 May 2007)

"Turkey's crisis and the European Union"
(23 July 2007)

"The new Russia: a model state" (27 February 2008)

An unsafe vehicle

First, in complex modern societies there is no such thing as "the people". The concept is a leftover from the time when democracy had to be legitimated in the eyes of anti-democrats; its residue today leaves it open to political manipulation. The homogeneity it implies can hardly be reconciled with the reality of an enormously varied modern society composed of millions of members with multiple motivations and choices, used to exercising individual rationality in the marketplace. How can they be compressed into something with a single voice, namely "the people"?

In too many cases - European integration among them - referenda function as an instrument not of democracy, but of populism. They can assist democracy only in a few special circumstances: for example, to resolve an issue that is more ethical than political (legalising divorce or abortion, say); or to unblock a political system (offering autonomy or independence to the population of a particular region and thus perhaps helping to avoid civil war or ameliorate division).

An example of the latter is when the populations of the various republics of the Soviet Union voted for or against declaring their sovereignty, which led to their independence as states. Another case where the referendum was a legitimate use of the instrument was the votes in 1997 on devolution for Scotland and Wales within the United Kingdom. The referendum held on 9 March 2008 in Hungary was ostensibly about the government's health-reform project; in reality it was about a means to articulate the deep disquiet in society about the refusal of the Hungarian government to listen to that disquiet.

Second, referenda are profoundly unsuitable ways of addressing complex issues, because they offer the illusion of a simple answer to complexity. In this sense, they pull the voters into the pre-political stance that lies at the heart of populism. Modern politics is about weighing various options, in circumstances where issues only very seldom appear in stark, good-vs-bad form. Referenda have an implicit, contextual message that says the opposite, something along the lines of "vote no" or "vote yes" and all your problems will be solved; as Tøger Seidenfaden has pointed out, referenda reduce highly complex issues to a simple yes/no answer. In a cultural sense, they "dumb down" the voters.

Moreover, voting "yes" often means accepting the word of the political elite's saying, in effect, "trust us". If voters wish to send a message to the elite that they are dissatisfied - for whatever reason, even one wholly distinct from the issue at stake - voting "no" is a convenient and simplistic solution. So the illusion of expressing the popular will is just that, an illusion.

Third, referenda reintroduce the tyranny of the majority, the very thing that modern democracies have sought to dilute by, for example, upgrading the role of civil society. Here again, careful analysis is needed. A great deal of politics is about making matters relatively easily intelligible, but this can readily cross the line into oversimplification, especially when sections of society will be clamouring for just that. The erosion of trust between political elites and society is also about the reluctance of the latter to come to terms with political complexity and the way in which both elites and media pander to the outdated desire for a golden age when choices were simple.

The trouble with that supposed golden age is that - whenever those who invoke it can be persuaded to identify it in terms of a definite period - majorities had no trouble in imposing their views on a minority. The evolution of various forms of lobbying, advocacy and pressure groups, and radical movements since the 1960s and 1970s is precisely about giving otherwise silent groups a voice. Referenda suppress that. It is quite plausible that a referendum on, say, recriminalising homosexuality or reintroducing the death penalty would gain a majority in several European nation-states. It is unlikely that the more vocal protagonists of "the people" expressing its view in this way would approve. Indeed, supporters of referenda as the articulation of the popular will are seldom if ever called upon to define what is a proper topic to be decided by "the people" and what is not. That too is a part of the easy ride the referendum receives in modern democracy (or, to be more precise, in a surrogate for democracy).

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Fourth, referenda offer power without responsibility, in that voters can confront elites without having to face the consequences of their action. At their heart, referenda provide an opportunity for ad hoc coalitions that never have to worry about the outcome. The far left and far right coming together in France in the May 2005 referendum on the European Union's constitutional treaty was a case in point; the two sides could never have governed together, but they could operate as a spoiler. Something similar was in evidence in Ireland in the Lisbon-treaty vote, where rightwing Catholics made common cause with leftwingers suspicious of Europe. The irony of this is that an ad hoc coalition of this kind can focus on a single issue and need never on any single occasion assume responsibility for the power that it wields.

The one-way street

Referenda have unintended consequences in that they introduce new political actors into the system together with fresh lines of polarisation, often around issues that (regardless of the new actors' demands) have no straightforward solution. This can also introduce and legitimate potentially destructive discourses - accusations of "sell-out" and "betrayal", for example - that gain credibility through being voiced by these "untainted" political actors.

Besides, the task of the negative campaigners tends to be simpler than that of the supporters - they only have to argue: "if in doubt, say no". This was much in evidence in Ireland's referendum campaign. For all practical purposes it left the supporters of the "yes" camp having to prove their credibility, if not actually their innocence. And once a "no" campaign has won, it cannot be blamed, as it immediately evaporates, once again leaving the (elected) elite with the problem of what to do next. The organisers of "no" campaigns themselves never have to face an election.

When referenda are held on questions to do with the future of Europe, there is a further generally unidentified twist to the story. European integration operates simultaneously with three different sets of actors - the European Union, its institutions and elites; the national elites; and the supposed European demos. These three do not really connect very much. There is some connection between the EU and the national elites, but the linkage between the EU and its demos is very weak and is generally felt to be weak.

It is this political gap that provides the opportunity for negative campaigners in European matters - they believe that they can hold "their own" national political elites to account for European commitments, something not possible at the European level, largely because identification with that level does not exist.

This is the democratic deficit that must be addressed. But referenda, far from overcoming that deficit, actually intensify it. Accountability and responsibility, after all, have to be a two-way process to work at all. Referenda operate only in one direction and, for that reason, are not an appropriate or a democratically sustainable instrument in European matters.

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