2016 will go down in history as the year of great elections among which the referendums occupy a prominent place. There were many surprises and the time of the exit polls seems to have passed. Black swans for the analysts, but natural shifts for the population, these trends change the fate of the planet and open a new perspective on democracy.
In the 2012 Romanian referendum for the impeachment of the President, 87.52% of the people voted “yes”. Following the letter of the law, due to a turnout of only 46.24%, Romania’s Constitutional Court invalidated the ballot as it did not reach the 50% threshold required by law.
In the 2016 Hungarian referendum on immigrants’ quotas, 98% of the ballots were cast in favor of rejecting the quotas. Despite this majority, this referendum too was declared invalid, as only 40.4% of the population voted, below the 50% voter turnout required by law.
Putting aside the real issues that have been subjected to popular vote, like the impeachment of the president or the migration, in both Romania and Hungary, the final results generated some very interesting political and moral questions, especially on how it is best to conduct a referendum in order to avoid manipulation and to represent the real will of the people.
Nowadays in Europe, referendums are increasingly used as public consultation tools, so there is a need to agree on the level of participation required to legitimize the results of these public consultations.
What happened in these referendums? From the outset, it was very clear that a camp will win, especially because it was backed by their governments. The “Yes” or “No” option opened up the possibility of boycott for those who opposed the initiative.
For the supporters of the President in Romania, or of migration quotas in Hungary, rather than trying to convince people to vote their way, it was easier to urge all supporters to boycott the referendum. They boycotted the referendum not because the vote could be rigged in any way, they simply acted so that the participation will not reach the required threshold.
Very clever, and ultimately very effective – but is it democratic? In this era of popular political commitments, when the mass vote is anti-system, is it acceptable to boycott a vote and thus undermine democracy simply because the chances are that the outcome will not be favorable to the boycotting side?
Most people agree that a referendum to be valid requires a certain minimum level of popular vote, but as we have seen, the setting of minimum participation is paved with abuses. Therefore, it would be better to simply establish an absolute minimum support for a proposal, regardless of whether those who oppose it express their dissatisfaction by voting against it or not voting at all.
For most elections, a turnout of 60% is considered acceptable, although many believe that for a referendum of national importance, 70% would be better. Taking the higher figure as a benchmark for representativeness, an absolute vote for a particular type of action would therefore require a minimum of 35% of registered voters for the vote to be legitimate.
On this basis, both the Hungarian and the Romanian vote would have been perfectly legitimate because the winning party had secured a support of 40.47% and 39.5% respectively.
Interestingly, in a similar line of thought, the Brexit vote (for which no minimum turnout was specified) would have passed, as 37% of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. However, the UK vote is considered valid while the referendums in Romania and Hungary are not.
Also in 2016, on December 4th, a referendum will be held in Italy, on a constitutional reform, the third in the history of the Italian Republic. If voters validate the referendum, it will enshrine the most extensive constitutional reform in Italy since the end of the monarchy. The referendum’s supporters argue that the referendum will not only change the organization of the Parliament, but will also lead to the improvement of the government’s stability.
In Italy, there is no threshold for validating the referendum and thus the main concern of both its supports and its detractors is to be a majority, regardless of turnout. In one way or another, the Italian referendum, of December 4th, will be valid.
The question is, how come the non-bidding referendums in the UK and Italy, are more valid than those in Romania or Hungary, whose only effects were the record of the overwhelming majority’s will.
The importance of the referendums in the EU, increased in recent years due to the need for legitimacy and because the European legislation recommends popular consultation for adopting European treaties. In this new era of participatory democracy, punctuated more and more often by referendums, Europe must establish a generally accepted set of rules on how these public consultations should be hold.
Therefore, a serious debate is needed and perhaps even to hold a Europe-wide referendum on referendums. Afterwards we will all have to get used to the idea that no matter how confident we feel on being right, when we are the minority, we lost the election.
Educated people respect human personality, that’s why they are always indulgent, gentle, kind, forbearing. States act in the same manner, the youngest and newest members of the European Union, too. There comes a time when education and common sense must face unfair treatment as a result of a Europe with two or more speeds.
In the US the Trump phenomenon confirmed the limits, and the population whose economic welfare and social security were ignored by the institutions in charge, made the difference by voting. All States and especially those of the European Union will have to understand that, especially in the relationships between them, they must behave like educated people.
“Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi” – “Gods may do what cattle may not”, says an old, but authentic Latin proverb. Up to a point cattle are meek and forgiving.
Up to a point!