Politicians are not delegates. They are not elected in order to uncritically relay the ‘will of the people’. They are elected to follow their own conscience and exercise their own judgement. If their constituents disagree with the decisions they take, then they can be replaced during an election. However, they are more than just a mouthpiece for their voters.
Modern representative democracy entrusts politicians with the autonomy to take decisions on our behalf. In a parliamentary democracy, MPs are able to take the time to listen to all sides in a debate, consider the options, understand the complexities, and make an informed decision once they have all the facts.
At least, that’s the theory. Critics, however, argue that politicians care more about getting re-elected than they do about making the right decision. They argue that MPs are too easily-swayed by corporate lobbying, and listen closest to those with the deepest pockets. In fact, some believe that direct democracy – in the form of regular and binding referendums on policy questions – is the only true form of democracy.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Thomas, who seems sceptical of referendums. He believes that the average citizen isn’t informed enough to properly engage with complex questions of policy. Is his scepticism warranted?
To get a response, we spoke to Arjen Nijeboer, Campaign Manager at the Dutch pro-referendum organisation Meer Democratie, and a Board Member & Council Member for Democracy International. Did he agree with Thomas’ comment?
No, because if we take this criticism seriously, we should abolish democracy altogether and install a dictatorship of professors.
Most citizens do not read the legal texts themselves, but the same goes for the large majority of politicians. Most of them also typically have no encyclopedic knowledge of the topic they vote on, but they rely on information shortcuts: summaries, media reports, expert advice, voting advice from NGOs, etc., just like citizens do.
All citizens should have a say on laws because all citizens have to adhere to the laws and suffer their consequences. The laws are supposed to make everybody’s life better (what other purpose could they have?) and all citizens are obliged to pay for policies through taxes. That is the big reason for democracy.
Next up, we had a comment from Ivan, who believes referendums should only be used to gauge public opinion, rather than to bind governments to a specific decision. The Netherlands adopted this approach when they adopted “advisory” referendums in 2015 (though the Dutch parliament has since voted to scrap non-binding referendums entirely, signalling an end to the country’s flirtation with direction democracy).
So, is Ivan right? Would advisory referendums be a good way to preserve and strengthen representative democracy? Or do non-binding referendums make a mockery of the idea of direct democracy? To get a response, we spoke to Yves Leterme, former Prime Minister of Belgium (2009-2011)
Next, we had a comment from Christos, who argues that referendums are, in fact, mostly used to give the government of the day a good kicking; the results a more likely to reflect government popularity than to be an actual indication of public opinion on an issue. Is he correct? Do we know if people are actually voting on the question asked?
How would Arjen Nijeboer from the pro-referendum campaign Meer Democratie respond?
That may only be the case when referendums are held only very seldom, the government is the only one who can trigger referendums, and the citizens have no possibility for that. In Switzerland, where citizens can trigger referendums all the time on anything, we never hear about a referendum turning into a popularity contest for the government, or of other issues being linked that have nothing to do with the actual issue. Direct democracy needs good rules, and practice, and then you will see that those “children’s diseases” are soon something of the past.
How would former Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme respond to the same comment?
Finally, we had a comment sent in from Protesilaos, who argues that referendums over-simplify issues, often reducing them to a binary “yes-no”. The “will of the people” will therefore always be vague, allowing politicians to interpret the results at will, distorting the possible message citizens wanted to send. What would Arjen Nijeboer make of this argument?
Of course, the parliament also votes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the end. It’s true that parliamentarians can indeed often amend the law proposals first, but certainly not always. All the laws in the Netherlands are finally decide by the Dutch Senate and it does not even have a right of amendment, so it can only accept or reject the law proposal, just like the citizens. Moreover, it is possible to design referendums in an intelligent and interactive way so that you include such elements in direct democracy.
Let’s take the Swiss popular initiative for example. If Swiss citizens can launch a popular initiative, this is first discussed by the government and the parliament. The parliament can negotiate with the citizens and ask them: if we realise half of your initiative text, are you then satisfied? The citizens have the right to pull back their initiative, so they can either say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If the citizens are NOT satisfied with the parliament’s proposal, a referendum is held on the popular initiative. But the parliament then has the right to place a counter-proposal next to the popular initiative.
During the referendum, the voters are then asked 3 questions: ‘Are you in favour of the popular initiative?’ (Yes/No); ‘Are you in favour of the parliament’s counter-proposal?’ (Yes/No); ‘If both get a majority, which one do you prefer?’. Using this method, there will always be an absolute majority for one of the three options: the popular initiative, the counter-proposal by parliament, or the status quo (neither of them).
Do referendums undermine representative democracy? Do they oversimplify complicated issues into binary ‘yes-no’ decisions? Do most people use referendums as an opinion poll on the government? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!