[VIEWPOINT]The use of direct democracy tools“The English people believe themselves to be free; they are gravely mistaken; they are free only during the election of members of Parliament. As soon as the members are elected, the people are enslaved.”
The 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned of the pitfalls of representative democracy. By entrusting their rights to elected representatives, citizens have no channel other than elections to express their opinions, and modern nations based on democracy have pondered on how they can reflect individual citizens’ ideas.
More than two centuries after Rousseau’s warning, many democratic nations have devised ways to include elements of direct democracy such as referendums, recalls by popular vote and initiatives.
In a modern society, citizens call for high-quality politics. It is difficult for a government to respond to citizens’ demands with elections that come only once every few years. The more democratically developed a country is, the more backup systems are in place to accommodate the good of direct democracy.
In fact, democratic countries have held seven times more national referendums in the last 25 years than the first quarter of the 20th century. Most European nations frequently resort to national referendums, and Switzerland alone has held over 70 such votes since 1975.
The United States does not allow nationwide referendums, but each state, with the exception of Delaware, has introduced systems of direct democracy by allowing citizens to initiate bills. Since the 1980s, statewide referendums have become more common and most recently, residents of California recalled governor Gray Davis and voted in Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.
Considered the most notable forms of direct democracy, national referendums are held in various forms in Western countries. Depending on the political, cultural, and historical environment, there are differences: Whether the initiative is with the head of state or the people and whether the results of the vote are legally bindiing or not. But the underlying purpose is universal: The referendum is a way to understand, reflect on and respond to public sentiment.
A national referendum helps overcome the shortcomings of representative democracy and makes the fundamental spirit of democracy better. But despite all these merits, national referendums could be more of a problem than a help in reality. Precedents have shown that national referendums tends to have lower turnouts than regular elections, which could make it difficult to reflect true public opinion. Statistics show that on average, the national referendum turnout rate is 15 percent lower than that of regular elections.
Not all voters are knowledgeable about pending issues, and when the referendum deals with complex international policy or major constitutional revisions, the voters might be swayed by external factors such as campaigns by interest groups, their financial situation or socio-psychological influences. Canada’s 1992 national referendum for constitutional revision required in-depth knowledge on administrative affairs, and 71 percent of the voters reportedly made a decision during the campaign. Twenty-nine percent admitted to having made up their minds right before the voting.
Australia held a national referendum in 1999 on whether to make the country a republic, and voters rejected the idea of withdrawing from the British Commonwealth. The national referendum was not the best option to make the decision to sever ties with the British crown, but alternative plans were met with fierce oppositions.
The risk is higher when a referendum deals with more general issue, such as a vote of confidence in a leader or support to a regime. That is why Western countries let elections put a candidate or a party in power and use national referendums as a tool to vote on specific policy issues. National referendums are a means to bring out support or protest on certain state policies. A regime or a leader should be tested through elections. National referendums are a reassurance for an important policy decision when it is not certain whether the public supports the idea.
Referendums assist the framework of representative democracy, and by obtaining approval for a certain policy from the citizens, a leader can enhance the quality of an administration. If the referendum were used to confirm the support for the regime itself, the original meaning would be distorted.
* The writer is dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Hanyang University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Sung-chull