THE MEANING OF PLEBISCITES, REFERENDA
European nations often hold popular
votes to make major decisions. The most recent ones involved the European
Union and the euro currency. Switzerland has held over 70 referendums over
the last three decades.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, discussing
representative democracy, said voters are "free only during the
election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery
overtakes them." In response to Rousseau's warning, many nations
have adopted elements of direct democracy such as the referendum and recall
system. But national referendums have been exploited as a tool to reinforce
the authority of or extend the term of a ruler. Napoleon became a consul and
then an emperor through popular votes.
Constitutionalists classify popular votes into referendums
and plebiscites. According to the "Introduction to the
Constitution" by Gwon Yeong-seong, a referendum is a
constitutionally designated popular vote regarding a constitutional revision
or a major national policy. A plebiscite is a kind of a vote of
confidence, often asking for the voters' confidence in a ruler or a
president. Plebiscites have been camouflages for dictatorships.
In the Republic of Korea's history, there have been six popular
votes. With the exception of the 1987 vote that approved the current
the others were held under martial law. The 1969 constitutional revision
that allowed the President three consecutive terms and the Yushin
constitution of 1972 were used to help President Park Chung Hee extend his
presidency. The Yushin constitution and the 1975 vote of confidence for Mr.
Park were typical plebiscites.
Former French president Charles de Gaulle, who reinforced
presidential authority through a popular vote, voluntarily resigned in 1969
when the voters turned down regionalization and Senate reform. The vote was
a referendum about policies, but he accepted the result as that of a
The Constitutional Court ruled that the vote of confidence
proposed by President Roh Moo-hyun was unconstitutional. The Court might
have considered the vote as a plebiscite, not a national referendum.
Recently, many Koreans feel that a national referendum is
needed to decide whether to relocate the Capital. This time, the President
is reluctant. Maybe he regards such a referendum as a plebiscite.
by Lee Se-jung <email@example.com>