BERLIN – For the second time this year, a referendum has toppled a European government: Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced his resignation after voters rejected constitutional reform. Like David Cameron’s Brexit fiasco, this didn’t have to happen. Given how widespread referendums have become in the last two decades, it’s time for advanced nations to figure out the best practice for plebiscites and stop misusing them.
Matt Qvortrup of the University of Coventry, who specializes in studying referendums, says direct democracy wasn’t particularly popular until the 1980s.
The 1990s set a record — 596 nationwide referendums. In the following decade, the number dropped to 440. These numbers don’t include hundreds of U.S. ballot initiatives and other regional plebiscites.
Instinctively, it feels good when people are allowed to give their opinion on matters of national importance. Lately, however, referendums, especially in Europe, seem half-baked and even nonsensical.
There’s the 2015 Greek referendum on two grindingly unreadable documents from Greece’s creditors. There’s Brexit, set up by Cameron to help him win an election — even though the victory ended up forcing him out of office. There’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s referendum in Hungary to block a common EU refugee policy — which Jobbik, a more anti-immigrant party than Orban’s own, didn’t back.
There is, finally, the Italian vote, which Renzi set up as a referendum on his own political future — perhaps because no one could understand the actual question: Do you approve the text of the Constitutional Law concerning “Provisions for overcoming equal bicameralism, reducing the number of Members of Parliament, limiting the operating costs of the institutions, the suppression of the CNEL and the revision of Title V of Part II of the Constitution” approved by parliament and published in the Official Gazette No. 88 of April 15, 2016?
All of these were miscarriages of democracy. Yet I disagree with my Bloomberg View colleague Clive Crook that referendums should be avoided at all times. In the United States, on Nov. 8, states voted on 162 ballot measures, nine of them to legalize marijuana for various purposes. It’s safe to say the eight states that went ahead with the legalization couldn’t have done it any other way. The same probably goes for the minimum wage increases that passed in four states — a normal legislative procedure probably wouldn’t have gotten the money as efficiently to low-paid workers. And I doubt Maine would have approved ranked-choice voting had it been up to legislators elected via the traditional system.
The Swiss, too, are largely happy with their system of government by referendum. Controversial measures usually get defeated (this year, they include a de facto ban on gay marriage and a badly thought-out universal basic income proposal), but reasonable ones pass (such as a proposal to refurbish the Gotthard Tunnel or the federal intelligence law).
A simple rule of thumb could be derived from recent good and bad referendums. Governments probably shouldn’t bypass parliaments. In Europe, the governments directly reflect general election results. The 2015 U.K. election created an anti-Brexit majority in Parliament — that was the will of British voters. Putting the question to them again the following year made little sense from a democratic point of view. It would have been fair for Brexiters to try to form a parliamentary majority before triggering Brexit — especially since a ruling from the parliament still appears to be required under U.K. law.
Renzi failed to get his reform through parliament because he lacked the necessary majority. Instead of putting the changes on the back burner until Italians elected a parliament that would accept them, he went to the voters, forcing them to do legislators’ work and, if they wanted to be responsible about it, read up on complicated legal texts. No wonder voters refused to go along.
In Greece last year, they did go along with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras when he tried to unload responsibility for rejecting tough debt restructuring conditions — but Tsipras turned around and accepted the terms anyway because there was no viable alternative. So what was the point of letting the prime minister go directly to the people? Orban’s referendum, set up so that he could win, failed because it was a pointless, symbolic exercise like the Greek vote — but Hungarians were unenthusiastic about that kind of exercise.
Governments are sufficiently empowered by voters. Allowing them to call referendums is excessive, a power that has been and will be abused with unpredictable results. The raw voice of the people is a powerful chorus; it shouldn’t be forced to sing false notes and incomprehensible lyrics simply because a prime minister needs it for the sake of political maneuver.
In the U.S., referendums are called when their initiators collect enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot. In Switzerland, that is also the general principle. Though politicians have complained about the proliferation of frivolous votes in California, the problem is relatively easy to mitigate by raising the threshold of support.
This year’s Dutch vote on the EU’s trade agreement with Ukraine produced, to my knowledge, the only recent example of a nonsensical outcome in a referendum called by the voters themselves. The rejection of the deal, however, was brought about by the failure of two governments — the Dutch and the Ukrainian — to explain its meaning and limitations. Now, an explanatory document is being prepared to clarify that the trade agreement doesn’t, for example, allow Ukrainians to work in the EU.
Though the Dutch vote stalled the ratification of the innocuous deal, it wasn’t a case of referendum misuse. Dutch voters felt the government hadn’t explained what it was doing, and they demanded to be consulted. To the government’s credit, it didn’t disregard the vote as Tsipras’ Cabinet did last year. The people’s will may often be inconvenient, but when the initiative comes from below, it cannot be ignored without political consequences.
Direct democracy is rather a blunt tool: Too few policy matters can be packaged as simple questions, as Renzi’s failure shows yet again. And yet there are substantive matters that concern people enough that they will actually read a presentation or at least a few editorials explaining the concept. This year, Coloradans voted to reject a single-payer health care system and the Swiss threw out the basic income proposal after lively, prolonged debates on the issues.
Why not let voters decide what they want to vote on, what issues they find sufficiently pressing and engaging? If they are silent, elected representatives should just get on with their business. Renzi certainly should have done that: The referendum shouldn’t have ended his promising run as prime minister.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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