Proposals establishing the procedure for a referendum on constitutional reform were rushed through parliament last week. While both politics and legal procedures preclude the actual tabling of reform proposals before 2010, the stage is being set with no-holds-barred determination by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and company to rewrite the Constitution.
In the case of such an overwhelmingly important issue as constitutional reform, it is only right that the people should be asked their will in as direct a manner as possible. Yet referendums are tricky things. They can indeed serve as the tool whereby people exercise their rightful power to determine the course of national policy. But they can also be used by self-serving politicians to legitimize their own actions and ulterior motives.
In the hands of such cynical people, a referendum can become a dangerous weapon. We in Japan with no past history of referendums should forewarn ourselves of the darker side of political thinking often behind the promotion of such a process.
Over in Europe, talk of referendums will stir a lot of recent memories. People will immediately recall May and June 2005. On May 29th, the French people voted against the European Constitution in a referendum. The Dutch did likewise on June 1.
The European Constitution would have paved the way to an ultimate United States of Europe. Or so people thought. In the end, they said no to such a path for themselves.
People with long memories may even remember June 2, 1992. That was the day the people of Denmark struck down the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum.
Maastricht transformed the then European Community into the European Union. It also set down the procedures for the introduction of the euro. Neither proposal went down well with the Danish public.
Memory of this event might trigger yet another recollection of yet another date and yet another referendum. The date was Sept. 20, also in 1992. The place: France.
Then President Francois Mitterrand, outraged by the Danish referendum result, decided that France, too, should go for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty. The assumption was that he would secure overwhelming support for the treaty, putting the Danes in their place and making it clear to other countries where the mainstream lay for proper Europeans.
The outcome came as a very rude shock to the French leadership. Mitterrand did get his majority, but with only the thinnest of thin majorities. For all intents and purposes, the results were a tie. The referendum had clearly backfired on its instigators.
Thus in Europe, referendums have a habit of not turning out the way politicians want them. And that is not at all a bad thing. It is measure of the maturity and astuteness of citizens that they are not easily taken for a ride by politicians with a hidden agenda. The French people smelled a rat in September 1992 and they were having none of it.
Germany’s Basic Law rules out referendums as a matter of principle. While legal opinion apparently differs on the finer aspects of the principle, this was the path that was chosen by people who had suffered from the terrible results of Hitler’s demonic populism.
Europeans should be saluted for their healthy skepticism of referendums when they are called by politicians who are in a hurry and determined to have their way.
Abe has been in a big hurry to get the necessary legislation through parliament. And he is very determined to get his way.
We should take good care to remember that Abe getting his way must not be seen as a foregone conclusion.
Because that is not what referendums are all about.