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Referendums & Plebiscites

Nationwide votes on a specific issue are an accepted way of resolving political issues in many countries around the world. Such votes are usually termed "referendums", though there are two special types of referendum for which a different name is sometimes used. First, when a vote is brought about by a demand from a prescribed number of ordinary citizens, for example by signing a petition, the resulting vote is termed an "initiative". Second, the term "plebiscite", though sometimes used interchangeably with referendum, has negative connotations in a number of countries, where it is used for votes that were not held under genuinely democratic conditions.

A referendum gives the people the chance to vote directly on a specific issue. Although people can also make choices at general elections, these elections are usually fought on a number of issues and often no clear verdict on any one issue is delivered.

Referendums have been used in many countries; in Switzerland they are very common [see Switzerland], in some countries there may be on average one or two per year, and in most countries they are rare. Generally speaking, they are not used to settle ordinary political issues of the sort that arise routinely, but to deal with major issues or issues that seem to transcend the regular party alignments. The most common situation in which a referendum is seen to be appropriate is a major regime change; not only the reform of an existing constitution, but the adoption of a new constitution or, the biggest step of all, the decision of a people to declare independence.

For example, Norway's decision to separate from Sweden in 1905 was made by the Norwegian people in a referendum in which 99.9 per cent voted for independence, a powerful expression of national pride. Similarly, Iceland held a referendum on becoming independent from Denmark. Spain's adoption of democratic reform in the late 1970s after the death of the dictator Franco was approved by the people through a referendum. Likewise, new constitutions have come into being through referendums in Denmark, France, and Ireland. The decision to move to multi-party politics has been taken by referendum in some African countries, such as Gabon and Malawi. In each case, it has been important for the legitimacy of the decision that this step towards independence or democracy has been taken by the people directly and not by the political elite.

A fundamental issue that has arisen in a number of European countries has been membership in the European Union, which has implications for the sovereignty of individual states. Of the current 15 member states of the EU, 5 have held referendums on whether to join: these are Austria, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Sweden. In addition, Britain, once in, held a referendum on whether to leave, while the people of Norway twice voted not to join even though the political elite on each occasion was in favour of membership.

This list illustrates the way in which referendum issues are often really major questions that rise above the sort of day-to-day political issues that arise routinely in a country. Generally speaking, referendums are best suited to such questions, and to issues that cut across the usual lines of division in a society rather than to issues that run along those lines.

For example, suppose a country has two main linguistic groups, with one language being spoken by 60 per cent of the population and the other by 40 per cent, and constant political tensions over the language issue. If a referendum were held to resolve the question of which should become the country's sole language, this would solve nothing, because the minority group would be unlikely to accept the majority vote in favour of the other language as a fair way of resolving the dispute. Ethnic disputes, too, are not easily resolvable by referendum. In other words, where a question of minority rights, and how far a majority can impose its wishes on a minority, is concerned, a referendum is inappropriate, because it may become a mere instrument of majoritarianism. In such a situation, the only possible use for the referendum would be to test the acceptability of a compromise worked out by the elites [see Negotiations].

Likewise, if a country is divided along left-right lines, there is little to be gained by holding a referendum on a left-right issue, which at best would be likely to replicate the vote in a general election. So, when referendums are held on political questions, these are usually ones that cut across the usual party divisions. Examples include votes on nuclear power in Austria and Sweden, or on divorce in Ireland.

Even if we can frame guidelines as to the most appropriate way to use the referendum, it does not follow that these will always be heeded. Indeed, there are many ways in which the referendum might be misused or even abused, and there are examples of most of these. In France, for example, quite a number of the referendums held since the Second World War have been held for opportunistic political reasons, when the government saw a chance to embarrass or divide the opposition.

This is an argument for regulating the circumstances in which referendums can - or must - be held; otherwise, if they can take place too easily on the whim of the government of the day, the institution of the referendum is liable to become discredited and such votes will not serve a useful function.

Indeed, all aspects of referendums need regulation. It is particularly important that the rules governing the referendum are drawn up in advance so that everyone knows what they are. Areas where this is necessary include the following:

* The exact wording to be put to the people is important since the more precise the question, the more meaningful the result. There have been instances of a vague or rhetorical proposal being put to the people, for example in the former Soviet Union in 1991, producing an outcome that means little. Similarly, the issue of who decides on the wording of the question should be stated explicitly in any legislation dealing with the referendum.

* The criteria of success; in some countries, some referendum proposals require more than a simple majority to pass; they must be supported by a certain percentage of the registered electorate. Provided the rules are sensible and are clear in advance, problems should not arise. Rules that require a certain proportion of the total electorate to back a proposal before it can be deemed to have passed are sometimes introduced, for example in Denmark, to ensure that small numbers of voters cannot sway the issue when the majority is indifferent. Such rules have some logic to them; less sensible are requirements that unless a certain proportion of the electorate turn out to cast a ballot, the whole exercise is deemed invalid.

In Italy, for example, there are rules relating to turnout; to be deemed to have passed, a proposal must be backed by at least 50 per cent of the votes, in a turnout of at least 50 per cent of the electorate. This has the disadvantage that opponents of a popular proposal may be able to wreck it simply by staying away from the polls.

* The interpretation of the results: if 49 per cent of voters cast a ballot in favour of a proposal, 48 per cent cast a vote against it, and the other three per cent spoil their ballot, has the proposal passed? In a well-regulated referendum system, the answer to this question is unambiguous. If it is not unambiguous, the aftermath of the referendum will result in political arguments about interpretation by the courts perhaps having to make the final decision, defeating the object of the exercise, which is to ensure that the people make the decision.

Referendums, like most other political institutions, potentially have both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include their legimitising role: a decision taken directly by the people is likely to be accepted as legitimate even by opponents of the idea, who might not have accepted a similar decision taken by the parliament or government. This has been apparent in votes on the European Union in Denmark and on divorce in Ireland, where referendums have settled contentious issues. In addition, referendums increase popular participation in decision-making and have an educative effect on the population, who inevitably becomes better informed on the issues at stake.

Among the possible disadvantages are that the instruments of representative government, such as parliaments, may be undermined, and that the public may not be sufficiently well informed to make sound political decisions. There is also a fear of majoritarianism, a concern that the majority might use the referendum to trample on minority rights.

Looking at referendum practice around the world may not bear out the utopian hopes of some early pro-referendum campaigners, but neither does it support the fears of those who see the referendum as potentially destructive to democracy. Most countries that have the referendum institution seem to have benefited from it and have incorporated it as a feature of the political process. For example the issue of Danish involvement in the European Union was settled by two extremely closely argued referendums in 1992 and 1993; in each case the turnout was over 80 per cent, the process left the Danes as the best informed people in Europe about EU issues, and the outcome had a legitimacy that a decision by parliament could never have had.

On the other hand, excessive use of the referendum can have negative effects. Across the world, the most frequent user of the referendum is Switzerland, where turnout in many votes is below 50 per cent, perhaps because the Swiss tire of voting so often - on average there are about 10 popular votes a year. Even so, the referendum is a full and accepted aspect of the Swiss political system, and some Swiss commentators even want it to be used more widely.

In Italy the referendum has been a more destructive force. The Italian rules allow a fixed number of voters to launch a challenge to an existing law, and on occasions Italians have been called upon to vote on up to 12 different issues on the same day. Italian referendum practice has co-existed uneasily with representative government at certain times. In countries where the institutions of representative government are weak or in a fledgling state, it may be unwise to allow groups of voters to demand referendums on laws that they dislike, since this creates the risk that tough but necessary decisions that might have been proved correct in the long term will be voted down by the people.

While the institutions of representative government can co-exist comfortably with the referendum, representative government and the initiative sit less easily together. The Swiss political system works smoothly enough with the widespread use of the initiative, but most other countries would find it much more difficult to carry on stable and effective government with such broad initiative provisions. Moderate use of the referendum does not seem to weaken representative government, and may even strengthen it, but excessive use may both weaken representative government and undermine the value of the referendum itself.

[ See also Popular Consultations: Referendums, Plebiscites, Recall ]