Insights into Editorial: A vote on referendum
The term democracy is perhaps the most challenging to define within the context of political science. Even though it has been used in a general sense to refer to ‘rule by the people’, the ways in which the concept has been understood and in turn implemented, has been many varied.
- A democracy may be representative or participatory. A Representative democracy is one where political participation is limited to voting over an agreed period of time and elected officials then represent the interest of their constituents. In Participatory type of democracy voting is limited to a specific time period, but allowance is also made for the population to participate actively in the affairs of the state at national and local levels in between these periods.
- Alternatively, a Direct Democracy may be in effect whereby the participation of citizens in the voting process and the control which they have over those chosen to represent them holds much weight. In this regard, to give more space for popular discussions, many countries resort to referendums.
What is a referendum?
This is the “means whereby a bill or constitutional amendment which has been voted by the legislature is submitted to the electorate for its approval before going into effect”. It gives individuals of a nation the freedom and to vote on specific issues of concern to them and it is in this respect that the “power of the people” is strongest.
Referendums have been in the news recently. The Brexit referendum, on whether Britain should stay in the European Union, concluded in June with 52% (of 72.2% of the electorate that turned out) voting to “Leave”. The October 2 referendum called by the Colombian government to ratify the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) resulted in a “No” vote favoured by 50.3% of the less than 38% of the electorate that turned out.
Why referendums are good?
Referendums tend to add legitimacy to difficult legislative choices and it is more risky to take unpopular decisions without that stamp of legitimacy. As regards capability, legislators are voted less on the basis of their lawmaking competency and more on their promises and popularity in democracies today. In India for example, legislations are influenced more by party satraps than individual Members of Parliament.
Referendums can foster political culture and involvement. It empowers people. They give citizens stronger control over political decisions.
Why they are not so good?
- The use of the instruments of direct democracy nevertheless entails some dangers. For example, the choices offered to citizens in referendums are few and are fixed beforehand.
- The citizens may not be interested or not agree with the options presented. Whoever has the power to define the question has the capacity to shape its outcome.
- Referendums are claimed to excessively simplify complex issues and reduce the possible outcome to two options.
- Many analyst compIain that referendums usually lead to populism and that populist leaders try to take advantage of them.
Can referendums be used in India?
If there are provisions which enable public voting on certain legislations, it could go a long way in not just sensitising the public towards important laws but also for a means of getting popular approval for them.
- Countries like Switzerland do have a referendum procedure for nearly every matter of importance; indeed many cantons are delegated enormous powers. But recall that these countries have a strong democratic temper, a tradition of public service by the administration, and are not saddled with a venal political leadership whose only objective is to gain and then retain power at any cost. The Indian electorate is also not mature enough to understand the implications.
- In a country as plural as India, the question is not merely whether the majority’s views have been counted, but whether majority and minority views are properly accounted for together. If we were to have referendums for every issue, the majority could end up having their way always.
- Given our cultural pluralism represented by the wide array of political parties, how would we decide what issue is worthy of a referendum? Unlike Britain, that had a three, now four-party system, India has 6 national and 49 regional parties recognized by the Election Commission of India.
- Also, some times, referendums are very artificial. The government can control the timing, which is a key factor in deciding who wins. The media, by playing an irresponsible role, can further distort the result.
- It is for this reason the framers of the Constitution embraced the idea of representative democracy over the kind of direct democracy that referendums borrow from. What a representative ideally does is to act as mixture of interests.
Regardless of its use governments the world over have not underestimated the powerful effect of referendums. Such attention however, leaves its use open to much praise and considerable criticism. Advocates of referendum use, point to the benefits of involving and ideally educating citizens in the political process above and beyond elections as well as the fact that as a forum for the expression of popular will, referendums presumably provide decisive answers to issues. An additional positive factor in the use of referendums is it’s stimulation of interest in politics, in contrast to the prevailing apathy and mistrust of the government, politicians and the political process; as persons would actually have a say in decision-making.
In today’s milieu where legislatures are driven more by narrow political battles between the power-seeking executive and a cynical opposition, a demand for an instrument of direct democracy to be incorporated into legislative actions could seem impractical and utopian. But it is not an idea to be scoffed at as it has its merits. India, according to studies on referendums held across the world till 1993, is one of only five democracies to have never held them. It is worthwhile to consider this mechanism at least as a limited device to enhance our democracy into a substantive one.