[FOUNTAIN]The meaning of plebiscites, referendums

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[FOUNTAIN]The meaning of plebiscites, referendums

European nations often hold popular votes to make major decisions. The most recent ones involved the European Union and the euro currency. Switzerland has held over 70 referendums over the last three decades.
The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, discussing representative democracy, said voters are “free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes them.” In response to Rousseau’s warning, many nations have adopted elements of direct democracy such as the referendum and recall system. But national referendums have been exploited as a tool to reinforce the authority of or extend the term of a ruler. Napoleon became a consul and then an emperor through popular votes.
Constitutionalists classify popular votes into referendums and plebiscites. According to the “Introduction to the Constitution” by Gwon Yeong-seong, a referendum is a constitutionally designated popular vote regarding a constitutional revision or a major national policy. A plebiscite is a kind of a vote of confidence, often asking for the voters’ confidence in a ruler or a president. Plebiscites have been camouflages for dictatorships.
In the Republic of Korea’s history, there have been six popular votes. With the exception of the 1987 vote that approved the current constitution, the others were held under martial law. The 1969 constitutional revision that allowed the president three consecutive terms and the Yushin constitution of 1972 were used to help President Park Chung Hee extend his presidency. The Yushin constitution and the 1975 vote of confidence for Mr. Park were typical plebiscites.
Former French president Charles de Gaulle, who reinforced presidential authority through a popular vote, voluntarily resigned in 1969 when the voters turned down regionalization and Senate reform. The vote was a referendum about policies, but he accepted the result as that of a plebiscite.
The Constitutional Court ruled that the vote of confidence proposed by President Roh Moo-hyun was unconstitutional. The court might have considered the vote as a plebiscite, not a national referendum. Recently, many Koreans feel that a national referendum is needed to decide whether to relocate the capital. This time, the president is reluctant. Maybe he regards such a referendum as a plebiscite.


by Lee Se-jung

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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