Current opinion

 

 

Direct democracy?

 

by Bernard KENNEDY

 

 

Switzerland is a country of about 7.5 million people residing in 20 cantons and six half-cantons. Any eight cantons or 50,000 citizens have the right to insist that new laws are put to a referendum before they can take effect. Referenda are held frequently, and the most citizens visit a polling booth several times a year. On June 5, for example, the Swiss voted by a majority of about 55% in favour of subscribing to the Schengen and Dublin accords envisaging cooperation among European countries on police and judicial systems and asylum and migration issues.

 

The ‘No’ votes in the French and Dutch referenda on the proposed EU Constitution demonstrated some of the (alleged) imperfections of the referendum as an institution. May citizens appeared to cast their votes in accordance with their current level of general satisfaction, their attitude to the government, or their views on arguably unrelated issues. Swiss referenda do not suffer from this drawback, partly by virtue of their very regularity, and partly because of the way Swiss governments are formed. In other respects, referenda are in principle as open to debate in the Alpen environment as they are anywhere else. Issues have to be reduced to closed (Yes or No) questions, the ability of the public to understand complex legislation is necessarily limited, an electorate may change its mind rapidly over time, and the possibility of a vote to curtail democracy itself can never be ruled out.

 

Most countries have held national referenda (The US, India and Japan seem to be notable exceptions). Outside Switzerland, however, referenda are held rarely, on a one-off basis and only on issues of acknowledged constitutional importance. Voters have been asked to endorse or reject: independence in East Timor, the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union and Qebec; devolution of power in Scotland and Wales (twice), EU membership, treaties and the euro in several European countries; NATO membership in Spain; Republicanism in Australia, apartheid in South Africa, divorce in Ireland and changes of written constitution everywhere from Russia (1993) to Burundi (2005) - with more anticipated in Kenya, Iraq and elsewhere. In some Latin American countries, referenda are also held to endorse or recall presidents. Even on issues of this kind, few countries resort to referenda easily, and governments or parliaments, confident in their legitimacy, frequently take on the responsibility themselves.

 

It is worth mentioning that the Swiss also regard referenda as particularly appropriate for dealing with constitutional issues. Constitutional amendments have to be submitted to a referendum as well as being approved by both houses of Parliament. A constitutional referendum may also be sparked by a people’s initiative of 100,000 signatures.

 

From De Gaulle to Papadopoulos

 

The man who became the major protagonist of the referendum in post-war Europe was an exception to all rules: Charles de Gaulle. Seizing on a moment of national crisis in 1958, he succeeded in having the French public approve a new and perceivedly more authoritarian constitution by an 85% majority. In this way he replaced the ‘Fourth Republic’, which he had never liked, by the ‘Fifth Republic’. Four years later, the French president also secured a plebiscite for Algerian independence.

 

In the De Gaulle tradition, most recent referenda called by European governments on constitutional issues have been intended to produce a ‘Yes’ vote. There is not usually much point in a political establishment going to the trouble of holding a referendum merely to prolong the status quo.

 

However, not everybody enjoys the enormous reputation of France’s legendary leader. More typically these days, the intentions of politicians are regarded with suspicion. The very fact that a referendum is held may be a sign of a government not sure of its ground. In the case of referenda involving international arrangements, the question to be asked may not be the product of satisfactory debate involving parliament and public. Both the decision to hold a referendum and the electorate’s response may be influenced by events in other countries. The Greek Cypriot referendum of April last year was arguably simply to defuse international pressure. For all these reasons, No votes - like accidents - happen.

 

 

The Turkish system

 

In Turkey, referenda have been few and far between. The liberal 1961 Constitution was approved by 62% of voters in July of that year. The highly restrictive constitution which replaced it was approved by 91% in November 1982. This new basic law banned the leading politicians of the pre-1980 era from taking part in politics for a period of ten years and permanently prevented any trial of the military leaders. The same Yes vote automatically made General Kenan Evren president of the Republic for a seven-year term. Restricted debate, the well-orchestrated support of the authorities and media for a Yes vote, the conduct of the voting and the fact that the only apparent alternative to the constitution was a more prolonged period of military rule all contributed to the outcome.

 

The 1982 constitution was not meant to be changed easily. It prescribes that amendments require a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and gives the president the right to put them to a referendum, even in cases where such a majority is obtained. In this way, referenda became an integral part of the political system, with binding results, and with no restrictions on the turn-out or the size of the majority required - but only for constitutional amendments, and only as one stage of an uphill process.

 

Over the years, the Constitution has been amended several times, often with a view to making it less restrictive. This has almost always been done without a referendum, thanks to consensus among the parties represented in Parliament and/or between political parties and the president.

 

Özal’s defeats

 

A constitutional amendment of May 1987 made it possible to change the constitution on the basis of only a three-fifths parliamentary majority provided both the president consents and the change is adopted by referendum. September of the same year brought the one constitutional change ever to have been made by referendum, when the public voted to lift the ten-year ban on the former politicians. This was, in a sense, a rebuff for the Turgut Özal government, which had no interest in seeing the names of Süleyman Demirel and Bülent Ecevit return to the ballot sheets in the next general election. But the margin was a dramatically slim 50.16%. Needless to say (?), a No vote would not have made the ban more democratic.

 

Özal instantly announced a snap general election, leaving his opponents minimum time to reorganise. Duly re-elected, he went on to sustain a 65% referendum defeat in September 1988 when he tried to bring forward the date of the next local elections (The Constitution fixes local elections at regular five-year intervals). The poll was one of history’s less crucial events: had the result gone the other way, citizens would have voted for their mayors, local councillors and muhtars in November 1998 instead of in March 1999.

 

Assessing risks

 

In 2003, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government introduced amendments to Articles 169 and 170 of the Constitution concerning forests. The aim was to allow so-called 2B properties - forest land which has become deforested – to be passed on to private developers, supposedly generating a huge income for the government. To sweeten the proposal, the AKP aimed to bundle the changes with an amendment reducing the voting age to 18. At the time, the AKP appeared to hold the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament. But in the face of presidential opposition, it eventually fought shy of a referendum which would have turned into a “vote of confidence”. It would have been accused by all other parties of encouraging the burning of forests as well as seeking to pave the way for corruption.

 

In the AKP era, referenda have been suggested by government supporters and media commentators to by-pass the president on a range of other constitutional matters from secularism to his own powers of appointment. Another intriguing option would be to bring important constitutional changes onto the agenda between May 2007 and November 2007 – a period when, assuming both presidential and parliamentary elections are held on schedule, the AKP may have the benefit of a friendly president and still control a three-fifths parliamentary majority.

 

That said, the lesson of experience in both the EU and Turkey is that Yes votes require fine engineering. If European electorates are economically dissatisfied and inclined to punish their rulers, then the Turkish electorate – with its tradition of volatile swings away from ruling parties – can surely be relied on even less.

 

One cannot help wondering what would happen if Turkish citizens were asked to vote on whether to start accession talks with the EU now…

 

 

(DIPLOMAT  -  June 2005  -  Ankara)