Referendums: The dangers of direct democracy

Adil Rasheed
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“Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property”. This anti-democratic diatribe does not come from any advocate of totalitarianism, but surprisingly from the ‘Father of the US Constitution’ and the ‘Bill of Rights’, James Madison (Federal Papers No. 10, 1787 AD). In fact, the ‘Founding Fathers’ ensured that the United States of America becomes a Constitutional Republic, with sufficient checks and balances on direct democracy to mitigate the dangers they thought it is susceptible to.

Ironically, there have been many well-meaning political philosophers throughout history — including Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Nietzsche etc. — who have consistently pointed out the flaws of democracy, with some regarding it worse than monarchy and a precursor to anarchy and tyranny. Even John Locke, whose political philosophies are said to have inspired the French and American Revolutions, was an exponent of representative form of democracy but not direct democracy — as the representative form was designed to check the ills of unbridled democracy, such as populism and majoritarianism.


The disturbing increase in referendums

Therefore the spate of direct democracy experiments since 2016 — such as the Brexit vote against EU membership, the Columbian vote against the FARC peace deal, Thai referendum in favour of military rule, Turkish vote for expanding presidential powers, the Kurdish, Catalan and last week’s Italian referendums — have drawn serious concerns among many Western political experts over the increasing impact of referendums on political stability and their “undemocratic” fallout. It is a disturbing new trend indicating growing public resentment towards failures of democratic governance and state institutions.

Direct democracy has three principal devices: ‘Initiative’ (citizens bypass legislatures by placing proposed statutes), ‘Referendum’ (wherein citizens vote on policy issues, even secession) and ‘Recall’ (citizens vote to recall or replace a public official before the end of the term of office). Another term ‘Plebiscite’ is also used and connotes a non-binding, advisory referendum conducted by a government. However, referendum has now become a generic term for all forms of direct democracy.

With the exception of Rousseau and Anarcho-Syndicalists like Noam Chomsky, referendums have generally drawn intellectual flak since times of ancient Rome, as they seek a simplistic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response from the electorate on highly complex political issues. To make matters worse, certain governments seek answers from an electorate on a variety of issues in a single vote, like the Turkish referendum this year which asked the general electorate to vote on 21 constitutional amendments in one go.

The general level of voter apathy or ignorance on complex political issues, even in advanced countries, is cited as a drawback of direct democracy. Most voters find it difficult to have the knowledge, inclination or time to fully study and delve into the subtler aspect of a piece of legislation. Their views are often influenced by campaign slogans, jingles, the social media, opinions of family, friends, their race, religion etc. Thus, Winston Churchill once famously observed: “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with a voter”.

To circumvent these problems, Western nations devised a representative form of democracy, wherein people elect officials, who are implicitly trusted to be aware of the subtleties and intricacies of policy and decide on behalf of their constituency. The legislative body and parliament retains opposition members, whose job is to question the majority-backed legislation and bring out a more nuanced understanding on policy issues during debates. However, referendums only uphold the majority verdict and leave no space for the opposing view, even when the margin of victory is narrow (like the Brexit ‘leave’ vote which garnered a little less than 52 percent).

Populism and majoritarianism

Sometimes, the popularity of any political party or leader calling for a referendum can influence people’s views away from the merit of the proposal put up for a referendum. Thus, the electorate ends up voting for a political leader or a party and not on the proposal for which the vote was sought.

Again, the time-specific vagaries and mood swings of an election can often skew the purpose of an important referendum. Sometimes, elections are influenced by populist or emotive issues and may violate minority rights, universal ethical values and curtail civil and individual liberties. This is illustrated by the fact that many dictators, like Adolf Hitler in 1934, have used referendums to legitimise their rule. As a concept, democracy is not limited to the process of elections, but comes with a complete set of political values including civil liberties, minority rights, rule of law etc.

Sometimes, rich regions in an economically challenged or politically unstable country (like the Kurdish region or Catalonia) decide to opt out or secede from their nation, just when the state needs their support the most. Such referendums seem oblivious to the fact that a declaration of independence might not resolve any problem but might trigger greater hostilities and dissensions within the province, the state and the region. It is for these reasons that the Kurdish and Catalan referendums have not been welcomed by the international community.

Therefore, it is important to understand that the buzzword of democracy in and of itself cannot be used to justify indiscriminate political determinism. Democracy is a movement of collective and institutional consciousness that grows over time and requires gradual and sustained nourishment across diverse societies having varying socio-political sensibilities and outlook. The one-system-fits-all approach cannot always provide desirable or sustainable outcomes.

Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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