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?

Image of a citizenNo, 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?

Image of a citizenThat 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?

Image of a citizenOf 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!

IMAGE CREDITS: (c) BigStock – Alexandru Nika

34 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar

    Representative democracy does not work because there is no effective way of correcting fraudulent politicians. A true democracy has a government that executes the will of the people. A government that does something completely different than what it has promised their citizen is not a democracy.

    • avatar

      “The Will of the People” – that’s the problem. In the name of democracy, you suggest what is commonly used by authoritarian governmens: The pretense that there is something as a uniform will of the nation and anybody who disagrees is not a true patriot and may ultimately put into prison as it happens in Turkey. In truth, there are multiple opinions about almost everything. Someone in parliament or government will have to find compromises which both reflect opinions of a majority and still protect minorities. In addition, they act in a constantly changing world where what used to be a good plan for government might become useless one or two years later

  2. avatar

    Representative democracy is a con. They represent the coorporative power. Referendum is semi direct democracy like it happens in Swiss in some local decisions. Direct democracy is a MP a before he votes he asks how to vote to the people that elected him.
    So representation is OK if it is direct or semidirect democracy. Like it is today is a con

  3. avatar

    When parties once elected put in ministers of parliament that are party members but were not directly voted in through a preferencial voting system then there is no undermining democracy because parliament does not represent the people but collectives of parties often far removed from the real problems of society

    as if they were truely honest individuals they would work and put in place preferencial voting of direct candidates of their parties voted in by the people through name snd surname

    a lack of this makes referendums a Corrective for the people not an undermine of anything except corruption, corruption which needs to be undermined!

    Democracy should not be corrupted! Ppl should work towards that through referendum if no other legal avenues are not available.

  4. avatar
    catherine benning

    Do referendums undermine representative democracy?

    No, quite the opposite is the truth. What you have used as a question is a false premise. We don’t have representative democracy. We don’t have it on three counts. First,, MP’s are not interested in the voice of their constituents once the vote is in. Secondly, they are dominated by party dogma, which is concealed during the run up to a general election and for as long after as they can keep it hidden. Additionally, there is no choice of representative, he/she is foisted on each constituency from the top. A chosen one who they feel can use their method of smokescreen adequately in any debate. Hence no real leadership material surfacing in any part of the European continent. Not forgetting, they lie about their intentions until in office, then it’s all change, with quips of, we never said that. What we really meant was. And so on.

    If you want true representative democracy, then every single MP should, in his local area amongst the voters of all parties, conduct a referendum on all issues politic. This leads to a Swiss style Direct Democracy if followed through as it should be. And that is ‘the will of the people.’

    • avatar

      There is nothing I hate more in politicians than those who make promises they have no intention of up keeping, promises simply to get elected. They are like Nigerian Internet scammers. And such false promises result in damaged Democracy.

  5. avatar

    Only if people don’t vote the way you want them to. Up next a referendum on Sweden’s involvement in the EU, looks likely they will vote to leave 8|

    • avatar

      If Sweden in a free and fair election votes to leave then that is their Democratic Right, if they vote to remain and deepen their relationship then that is their Right as well. What is important is that there is a good Debate and that the Government, Parliament, Political Parties and Media inform the public properly.

      Take Britain as a textbook example, Nigel Farage been talking about Brexit since 20 years. And since the last 10 years the British have had leaders like Cameron who made it clear that they want a better deal with the EU, the EU refused, Cameron comes back to London with empty hands, what happens BREXIT. If the EU had given him a little something maybe Brexit would never have happened. Regardless of current difficulties it is a fact that Britain has been talking about Brexit in one way or another for about 20 years, it was no spontaneous decision.

  6. avatar

    Yes, they do. After all if you don’t like a government you can vote it out of office at the next election. And besides, citizens are not always well informed about the issues at stake. Brexit is a prime example.

    • avatar
      Paul X

      A referendum was considered good enough to keep the UK in the EU (EEC) back in 1975, why should the 2016 UK referendum be any less valid?

  7. avatar

    The Brexit campaign was maked by blatant lies (e.g. the expected NHS windfall) which people are quick to believe. Hence, referendums are only good for local/regional issues where people really understand the issues they are facing.

    • avatar

      If we are not wasting money on the pointless EU of course there is a windfall & the only people who do not like referendums are those that do not like democracy ie. Pro EU fanatics..

      But thank you for the repeating the remoaner lies, your problem is we didn’t believe them then & we do not believe you now and we really are leaving, get over it.


    • avatar

      Civis the British talked about Brexit for 20 years.

    • avatar

      And you’ve just proved his point

      The referendum was not thought through well. A good referendum not only would have said ‘leave’, it would have said what comes next. It didn’t which is why we’ve had 2 years of political paralysis.

      Referendums can work well with protections and a clear focus, for example, the recent ones in Ireland on same sex marriage and abortion

      Btw, even government figures show no windfall from leaving the EU. Even without payments, the costs to the economy will dwarf any savings. So that ‘spending spree’ will be paid for by tax increases

  8. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    For how long will the EU & Friends try to hide & deny the EU’s & EP’s genomic democratic birth defect spanning from March 1958 called the ‘European Parliamentary Assembly’ to March 1962 changing its name to the ‘European Parliament’?

    Whereas the European Council & Commission remained the sole institution empowered to initiate legislation. The “parliamentary committee” was “allowed” to rubber stamp! Great!


    Trying to erase, whitewash & hide all democratic sins of the past- should & will never succeed- not even by decreeing the unbelievable- sorry just dishonest!

    On 1 December 2009 Article 10 in the Lisbon treaty was introduced to “declare” that the functioning of the Union shall be founded on “representative democracy”. Sorry- just not possible! Why?

    How can it be, that above “declaration” can be considered truly democratic when arrived at through an “EC dictatorial” decree- smuggled “eventually” into the Lisbon Treaty by 2009 to become EU law?

    Believing, nobody will notice the event & time contradictions since 1958? Hopefully voters will forget or suffer similar but convenient memory lapses as politicians do?

    Isn’t it comparable if Kim Jong-Un would declare/decree- that North Korea suddenly is a “presidential democracy” as from today? Who in the West would believe that?

    Why should we believe and accept the declaration in Article 10 as democratically derived? One must be democratically deranged to believe that!


    For god’s sake, stop declaring or pronouncing “decrees” as democratic and putting horses before the carts- while instructing the carts to gallop into the horses!

  9. avatar

    Yes. Referendums are the easiest way for elected representatives to run away from the political responsibility they bear and blame “The People”.

  10. avatar

    There some issues mainly constitutional where the people should decide directly. Referenda are perfectly reasonable ways of making the decision.

  11. avatar

    I think we should answer the fundamental questions about democracy:
    1_ Basically, the goal of democracy is to achieve “desirable” or to achieve “correct”?
    2. Which of the main tools is the realization of democracy: “consult” or “comment”? Which is the priority?

  12. avatar

    As a Swiss who has experience practicing this I can tell you that Referendums and ballot Initiatives aka Direct Democracy doesn’t damage Representative Democracy, it completes it.
    In my Country Politicians know that when they pass a law the Citizens can recall it if they don’t agree with that law thus this results in more compromise, or in a decision by the people where compromise is not possible.
    Also ballot Initiatives are a way to get past old blockages and to allow Citizens to accept or block something that political parties, private citizens or interest groups consider important.

    And Thomas claims that the average voter isn’t competent enough to know the issues, how does he know this and can he point to specific members of society who he claims fit this criteria or is he too embarrassed to do so?

    Most people in Parliament are well versed in one field, the field they studied in. If you look at Parliaments throughout the World you see many Senators who are Lawyers, what qualifies a Lawyer to be ”smarter” than a Taxi driver in a question dealing with solar energy? Or maybe space exploration? Or maybe big public transport projects?
    Also many Parliamentarians are studied in things like History, what qualifies a Historian to vote on Tax laws? Or maybe things dealing with building Hospitals?
    The issue is reading and understanding what you are reading, is Thomas saying that the Taxi Driver or Painter etc. can’t read and understand what they are voting on?

    A couple days ago in Switzerland I had to vote on local construction of new schools, public housing etc., I voted yes because we need these projects because the population is increasing all the time through migration etc., how would a Senator have been smarter?
    Also the Government advised me to vote yes. Which for some can be a good guide of how to vote, I personally also have my own mind and don’t blindly follow what the classe politique would advise me to vote, I’m nobody’s puppet.

    It is also up to the Media and the different political parties to explain their position on the issues the public is voting on and what the consequences are of the decision. Whenever I get my voting package in the mail in the election booklets there are always the pro and contra positions and also the opinion of the different Government Authorities.
    We are no strangers to controversy as in any Democratic system but our mistakes are our mistakes and our achievements are our achievements.
    I have no doubt that Switzerland has such a high quality of life precisely because of Direct Democracy. And in any case any decision we make WE HAVE TO LIVE WITH.
    For me it is strange to see a person argue that they want less Democratic rights to decide their own destiny. No sane person would argue this for their private life.
    Imagine if in 2002 when the US Congress voted Yes to the Iraq war if US Citizens got together and called a Referendum to stop this war, who knows what would have happened, maybe the US Citizens would have approved this war or maybe not, but think about the 1 Million dead Iraqis, all the raped women and girls, Isis cutting it’s way through large sections of that region.
    1000000 British demonstrated against that War how would Britain have voted, maybe if Britain voted no but the US yes maybe G W Bush might have decided against going in alone as we saw with Obama in Syria when the UK Parliament voted against going in.
    I cannot prove it but I suspect that a Country with Direct Democracy will be very reluctant to go to War, as the same people voting will be the one’s sending their son’s and daughter’s to fight and possibly die, so they would vote yes only if they felt it was absolutely necessary.

    Imagine Hitler, as we know Hitler was Democratically elected but his anti Jewish policies were not. Because of the Ermächtigunsgesetz he was able to do whatever he wanted, deciding over life and death like some God. Imagine if Germany had Direct Democracy and the Germans public had to vote on the Ermächtigunsgesetz, would they give a man such power, maybe yes maybe no, we will never know, but regardless of the decision it would have been their responsibility and not just the Parliament. Imagine also if the Germans were asked something like ”Do you want to kill you neighbours who are Jewish?”
    Would they have supported such a proposal?
    Again we will never know as we don’t have a time machine but such a question would have brought a massive debate in German society, a society with Philosophers, Artists, rich poor etc., and especially a Christian Society, Jesus Christ never taught to kill or persecute anybody, how would they have voted?

    I can tell you that in the Swiss System we have explicit protections to prevent voting on such a question in the first place. We call it the Sklaverei Verbot in english the slavery ban. So such a question would not even end up on my ballot.

    More Democracy and more Freedom that is what we must strive for people!

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      @ Stadex

      Thank you so much for this post, it was sorely needed. And is needed throughout the European continent, including the UK. There, in my country, Direct Democracy is considered an anathema. Our Parliament, the upper chamber, or, House of Lords, being completely unelected, is terrified of the will of the people. We so badly need an injection of the Swiss peoples collective understanding of true democratic rights and the freedom it gives their people to voice their rights under law.

  13. avatar

    Constitutional democracies are a scam devised by the Brittish to control the colonies. Under this scam representatives robe the people of their power to control their affairs and the environment around them through the scam of the elections that are waged to give the impression of choice nevertheless the reality is otherwise. Constitutional democracies are covered oligarchies. Once you vote you are irelevant. You dont even have to vote. Representative democracies divide a population in those that get paid to manage the state and those that pay them by force to do so. Only the formrr have to vote and they always do. The latter dont have to BUT they do not realize it. The think their vote counts.

  14. avatar
    Dimitri P.Iliou

    Although to reply to a question is not exactly polite I do such a thing because we are talking for something which is serious
    Does anybody believe that democracy is not a real thing is Switzerland ? where they do have referendums ?.

  15. avatar

    No. Most people are not able to understand complex problems. Furthermore, as today political campaigns are soaked with lies it is almost impossible to obtain a neutral information without extra research etc., which most voters won’t do. Last but not least, elected politicians should have the guts to make decisions and take their responsibilities. That’s what they are paid for.

  16. avatar
    EU Reform- Proactive

    OK, the honest none pc answer is:

    Yes, because it undermines the undemocratic EU concept and threatens its (il) legal foundation & therefore its very existence.

    “Referendums” in the EU are rather called “Citizens Initiatives” (ECI) & only available since April 2012.


    They are considered a plebes irritation to be avoided at all costs- like the black (blue) death which causes “plebiphobia”.

    Since the EU is a regulatory superpower- no opinions from anybody is taken serious- if not submitted by national governments and tested thereafter against all EU Treaty & TEFU laws, regulation, directives etc……

    In short- the only legitimate way to “seriously” impress the EU is a national exit referendum at home to effect, enforce or “decree” change!

  17. avatar
    catherine benning

    Do referendums undermine representative democracy?

    Here is a link to a riveting discussion that will be of particular interest to Brits.

    When JRM raised the issue in committee of us, the UK, being a vassal state, he must have known we were already very close to that position. It would appear, according to this man’s revelation, if you want to compare the reality of undermining a representative democracy, then this referendum had in the UK certainly brought freedom from that situation about. Or, has it?

    This really is a revealing interview.


  18. avatar

    Democracy is overrated in any form. Unless you are in it for gain you have to be brainwashed to believe in this “democracy” “freedom” “equality” rhetoric that is being pushed constantly.

    The elites are completely lost and quite frankly evil.
    Isnt it the same money power behind all the systems? For hundreds of years same or similar families are behind it. They care nothing for people.

    Godless capitalism or godless socialism. Wow “awesome” choices.

    Representative democracy has bought out politicians who dont care once in office.
    Direct democracy is easily easily manipulated by brainwashing masses (see last few decades in West Europe), or cheating.

  19. avatar

    A referendum does not undermine democracy as long as it is a rule agreed in a democratic system. However, this is an irresponsible act and a loophole of democracy which seeks to shift duty and responsibility back to the public when parties or politicians refuse to compromise and failed to achieve consensus. How come situate a deadlock? It is mostly a political consideration on election and party politics. A referendum is to compel submission of the others, it might actually escalate the conflict and even tear the society and country apart. As we can see the BREXIT, the issue of Crimea and Catalonia, they have all not solve any problem, instead created new ones.

  20. avatar

    In order to reduce undesirable consequence of a referendum, the threshold has to be high up to 70% rather than just 50% as with the BREXIT. Further the people should be allowed to say whether they want a referendum beforehand. When a referendum is not likely to process and a 70% support is not like, it would not be easily manipulated as a tool. Furthermore, it would discourage people to overrule and discredit the referendum result with all sorts of excuses requesting for a second referendum as we have seen now with the BREXIT.

  21. avatar

    BBC reported on 19 August 2018: ” One of the co-founders of the fashion label Superdry has donated £1m to the campaign for another EU referendum.”

    Multi-millionaire Julian Dunkerton said he was backing the People’s Vote campaign because “we have a genuine chance to turn this around”.

    When states all over the world are re-adjusting domestic and foreign policy at the midst of such chaotic situation created by the Trump administration, British political leaders have the duty and responsibility to tell the people honestly what is going on. UK has already passed the best time for BREXIT. A second referendum is urgently required.

  22. avatar

    The only useful function of democracy is the ability to replace an incompetent or unpopular government every five or so years.

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