Monday, 23 May 2016

Referendums: a good idea?

Referendums, like the one in the United Kingdom on 23 June 2016 about EU membership. Some see it as a miracle solution to connect (or reconnect) citizens with politics. By having more to say, they'll be motivated again for the political game. Or so goes the argument.

For the European Union, this may be a strong argument to hold referendums. The EU is sometimes seen as very distant from its citizens. So here's your miracle cure for saving democracy. Or not. In referendums, you get the wrong answers to the wrong questions.

Take the Dutch referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine. As some opinion leaders claimed, most of the Dutch didn't even know where Ukraine is on a world map. Let alone they read the over 300 pages of the document. Why ask the Dutch in a referendum about a trade treaty with a country thousands of miles away?

Referenda: a good idea? ©
A quick look on the comments on a website explaining the treaty shows that many persons didn't bother to inform further. One person commented to vote against as long as the government couldn't explain the treaty. Actually, he/she could have found a clear explanation on the government's website.

So instead of judging the treaty on its merits or its shortcomings, the 61% who voted against didn't vote against the treaty. They voted against the establishment, the EU, the government, or maybe just because they had a bad mood. They also voted against the incapacity of politicians to judge whether there should be a referendum or not.

However, that does not apply to the UK referendum: there's a clear question and clear answers. Still, people might just vote against, just because they don't like the UK's government. Or because they don't like politicians.

Switzerland took another approach: in addition to voting for the Federal Assembly (that's the parliament), about 4 times a year, referenda are held. In these referenda, they receive an explanation of the law, a choice (yes or no) and an advice of the government. This way, citizens inform themselves before voting. There's even a possibility to block new laws by collecting 50 000 signatures, and holding a referendum on the new law. Isn't that a better way?