September 6 was a Rainbow Day in the history of social reforms in India. The Supreme Court decriminalised Section 377 to recognise sexual rights of LGBTQ community members. Judiciary has pronounced socially important verdicts in other parts of the globe too, for example, abortion became legal in the US after the ruling in the historic Roe v Wade case of 1973. In India though, the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act had come into force in 1971. These are just examples of social reforms orchestrated by the nation – either by legislators, or the judiciary.
In contrast, a distinct second culture also prevails in some part of the world, especially in Europe. Ireland’s landslide referendum to repeal its abortion ban in May 2018 was a matter of tremendous celebration to many. However, although I’m not against abortion in any way, I seriously doubt common people’s capacity, wisdom and knowledge on complex socio-economic and political issues, whichever country they might live in.
Interestingly, the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution granting a mother and her unborn child an equal right to life was approved by 67 per cent of Irish voters in 1983. It was Amanda Melle, an Irish-American woman, whose legal case against Ireland in the UN helped spur Ireland’s abortion referendum in 2018.
The UN called on Ireland to amend its laws criminalising abortion, including its Constitution, if necessary. A legislation was already outlined even before the referendum. Now that nearly twothirds of Irish people recorded their verdict in favour of abortion, the new legislation was likely to be passed through parliament relatively unhindered. However, did the Irish government try to use the referendum to support the change in the legislation?
The British government never asks Britons whether the country would join the US in the air strike against Syria. But, when it’s a very difficult and sensitive decision with a long-standing socio-economic impact like Brexit, they seek people’s opinion.
In another referendum in 2015, 62 per cent of Irish voters voted in favour of same-sex marriage. My question is that if such a decision has to be taken, why is not taken by the government or the court? Government could certainly consult relevant experts and feel the pulse of the people by surveys, if needed. For example, in 2017, Australia planned a postal plebiscite on the same-sex marriage debate.
A ‘plebiscite’ is a nationwide vote to gauge public feedback on a political proposal, which is not legally binding, unlike a referendum which has, in most instances, the power to alter the course of law. In the culture of referendum, the onus is on the shoulders of common people. I struggle to understand how voters can distil difficult policy choices down to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Can a ‘common man’ predict the outcome of decisions so complex that even experts might spend years struggling to understand them?
Quite often we experience repeated referendums on a particular issue, although they are unilateral in nature. They are like tossing a coin until we get a ‘head’ and stop tossing it thereafter. However, if a coin, even with a very small chance of obtaining a ‘head’, is flipped repeatedly, we’d eventually get a ‘head’ – it can be mathematically proved. Similarly, if repeated referendums are conducted, it would eventually yield the ‘desired’ result.
For example, in their first referendum in 1986 on ‘divorce’, nearly two-thirds of the Irish people ruled it out. However, in their subsequent referendum in 1995, Irish voters favoured allowing ‘divorce’, although by a whisker. Although personally I’ve no doubt that ‘divorce’ should be an option in any modern society, don’t forget that nearly half of the Irish people were against it in 1995. However, there was no attempt to track the changing proportion through any referendum subsequently.
Interestingly, Ireland might stage another divorce referendum in November 2018, this time for a reduction in the waiting time for a divorce from four years to two. Such referendums usually look unilateral. According to a YouGov poll, in the context of Brexit, every hour since August 2016, the net shift towards ‘remain’ is more than 60 voters, and if another referendum could be sought now, ‘remain’ could dominate ‘leave’ by more than a 10 per cent margin. However, Theresa May ruled out any possibility of another referendum on this issue.
Two referendums in 1980 and 1995 did not give independence to Quebec from Canada, although the 1995 referendum was a pretty close call. Another Quebec referendum might be a reality some day. Scotland could not break out from Britain in their 2014 referendum, but the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is certainly keen to identify a suitable time for another in the near future.
East Timor, Montenegro and South Sudan – all these countries were born out of referendums; however, no subsequent referendum in any of these countries was held to know the pulse of their citizens – whether they are happy with the newly formed country or they want to go back to their old country.
Referendums have become a culture in Europe – be it for possible induction of a new member in EU, for the Euro, for the European constitution, for possible economic bailout of Greece. I wonder how much economics common people understand to say yes/no on such complex issues. However, a powerful government can get any potentially dangerous decision endorsed by a national referendum.
In the 2016 referendum, the Thai people endorsed a constitution which, according to many, curtailed democracy. People usually follow their leaders; be it in the 2016 referendum of Hungary to restrict the refugees, or in Columbia’s peace referendum where most regions that voted for President Juan Manuel Santos in 2014 also voted for the peace deal, and vice versa. Don’t forget that David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum although that was not a referendum on his premiership at all.
Two recent examples from Spain might illustrate the potential danger of the ‘referendum’ culture. In June 2014, tens of thousands of people in numerous Spanish towns and cities demanded a referendum on the future of the monarchy after King Juan Carlos announced his plans to abdicate and hand over power to his son Felipe. And when the referendum culture would extend its footprint to the Catalonia crisis in 2017, Spain would feel discomfort and so would most of the Europe.
Liberal social outlook is often welcome, although not always. Important economic and political decisions are also inevitable for any country. Historically many important social reforms were shouldered by eminent social reformers and visionaries, be it widow remarriage, women’s education, prohibition of the practice of ‘Sati’ in India or the abolition of slavery in the US. Any of those reforms could have been delayed by a century, at least, if they had depended on public referendum.
What’s about today’s world? What if no such great social reformer was available historically for important social change? Well, let the legislators or the courts do their duties and take decisions with full responsibility on such social and economic issues. The ‘Common Man’ should elect the legislators during elections – that’s the scope of his referendum. That’s good for the people, and for democracy as well.
The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute.