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Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

A new oxymoron: binding consultative referendum

10 November 2016


In Switzerland, a referendum works quite well: the voter turnout is satisfactory and the referendum outcome is not disputed unlike other countries (eg, Brexit). Essentially, there is nothing wrong with having a referendum. As usual the devil is in the details.

In Switzerland, people know that a referendum is binding and non-consulting. In other countries, politicians tell people that it is a consultative referendum – and thus by definition non-binding – and then treat the outcome as the exact opposite. Their usual argument is that “you cannot ignore the will of the voters”.

The result of these mind games or reverse psychology, is that populists are able to use a referendum against the government. Any referendum is likely to be supported by the ones asking for it. The consultative referendum is likely to be ignored by its adversaries as it is non-binding anyway. Hence, a flawed outcome of a consultative referendum is more than likely.

Brexit was an interesting hybrid: a binding and consultative referendum, which is basically a “contradictio in terminis“. It is even an oxymoron as David Cameron had pledged – and upfront – to bind the UK to the outcome of a consultative referendum (eg, NYT, 21 June 2016).

On 23 June 2016, the official Brexit outcome was as follows: Leave won by 52% to 48%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting (BBC). Given the aforementioned nature of a consultative referendum, the statistical outcome of Brexit can never be a so called “normal (or Gaussian) distribution” in which a “margin of error” is reliable. Overall, it’s more likely that Leave voters supported and Remain fans ignored this referendum. Hence, a difference of 4% with a voter turnout of 71.8% is statistically unlikely to represent the “majority of the British people”.

The oxymoron of the binding consultative referendum can easily be repaired: either follow Switzerland by amending the current Advisory Referendum Law or just cancel that law. 

Essentially, you either trust your voters or you don’t. This alleged though misattributed Winston Churchill quote is a satirical politicians’ view on their voters: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

The background of Swiss legislative referenda is interesting: “The origins of Switzerland’s [] referendums lie in the experimental phase of democracy in the 19th century when Switzerland was surrounded by monarchies on the European continent that showed little to none enthusiasm for democracy.” (source).

It’s satirical that an instrument that was once introduced to support democracy is now used to undermine (parliamentary) democracy.

HBO Last Week Tonight by John OliverBrexit song (2016)


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