Home / Opinion / An excess of democracy

It seems appropriate, writing on the death anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar, that I am mindful of the Indian Constitution. Even as a schoolboy, when it seemed turbid and turgid, I was taught to celebrate the many freedoms he enshrined in its dense prose, long before I could fully grasp the democratic processes it protects. But this year, I’m especially grateful for a democratic exercise the Constitution does not allow: referendums.

It has been a bad year for what some political scientists call “extreme democracy". A June referendum resulted in Britain opting to exit the European Union (EU); in a referendum in August, Thais decided in favour of a constitution giving the military a larger role; an October referendum in Colombia cancelled President Juan Manuel Santos’ peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) rebel group; and in a referendum on Sunday, Italians voted against constitutional reforms.

All of these decisions seem counter-intuitive to most outside observers: Brexit will weaken Britain’s economy and its ability to influence the world; Thailand’s democracy has been weakened; the peace deal was designed to end a long, bloody rebellion that has cost Colombia dearly; and decades of political and economic chaos demonstrate that Italy’s constitution is in dire need of reform. And yet, in each referendum, the majority of people voted against their best interests.

In two instances, the results also brought down powerful, charismatic political leaders—Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK, and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy. Each had staked his office on his favoured outcome, and was forced to resign when the result went the other way.

Cameron was in New Delhi last weekend, for the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, and I asked him if he regretted putting the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU to a referendum. “I regret the (people’s) decision," he said, “but as a democrat you can’t regret holding a referendum, or abiding by the result."

It was the answer of a seasoned advertising executive-turned-politician, carrying little conviction. And if Cameron isn’t having second thoughts, many of his countrymen certainly are. Polls now suggest that many who voted for Brexit are having buyers’ remorse, and a new term has been coined to capture this sentiment: Bregret.

You would have thought Santos and Renzi would have learnt from the Brexit example and avoided the referendum route for their own causes. But the temptation to go over the heads of their political opponents and directly to the people was too great.

For politicians, the seductive power of a referendum lies in its combination of simplicity and finality: you take a complex question, reduce it to a yes-or-no proposition, put it to a popular vote, and, hey presto, the decision has cast-iron legitimacy.The ideal outcome, of course, is that the vote favours your argument; but even if it doesn’t, there may be some small consolation in the fact that there’s no more bickering: the argument is over, and everyone moves on.

But the simplicity of referendums is exactly what is wrong with them. Most political propositions put to the test in this way are highly complex, and to reduce the choices to “Yes" or “No" is to greatly understate the gravity of the outcome. Typically, political parties boil the issues down to deceptive, or even deceitful binaries, playing to the electorate’s fears and prejudices. Those favouring Brexit, for instance, persuaded many Britons that to remain in the EU would be tantamount to opening the country’s borders to a flood of immigrants, among whom would lurk many terrorists. The camp opposed to constitutional reforms in Italy argued that these would give control of the country to faceless, unelected bureaucrats.

Defenders of referendums say they are not all bad, and usually point out that Switzerland, that shining example of stability, has them all the time. The Swiss call this “direct democracy", and this is sometimes seen as the opposite of “representative democracy", where issues are debated and decided by elected representatives of the people. But Switzerland actually has both forms and, in fact, the vast majority of decisions are taken by parliament, not directly by the people.

Can a referendum be undone?

Not without great cost, in money, time, and credibility. It is harder still when the outcome has handed political power to the “winners"—like Theresa May, who took the opposite position to Cameron, and replaced him as prime minister. There’s little prospect she will propose a do-over referendum.

In hindsight, then, it was wise of Colombia’s Santos not to threaten to resign if his people rejected the accord with Farc; this precaution gave him the political space to amend it for reconsideration. Wiser still, he decided not to put the new version to a referendum, instead bringing it before parliament. Last week, the new deal was approved. Cameron and Renzi, I suspect, would give anything for that second chance.

Never having been in the shoes of a Cameron or a Renzi, some Indian politicians wish they could put their pet causes to the test of direct democracy. For instance, Arvind Kejriwal was inspired by the Brexit vote to tweet: “After UK referendum, Delhi will soon have a referendum on full statehood." Happily, this was no more than a pipe dream. Never mind the chief minister of Delhi, not even Indira Gandhi, at the height of her Emergency hubris, was able to change the Indian Constitution to allow “direct democracy."

Thank you, Babasaheb.

Bobby Ghosh is the editor-in-chief of HT Digital Streams.

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