How sensible are referendums?

The Hungarian referendum on refugee quotas has failed due to the low voter turnout. In a surprise outcome, the Colombians have voted against the peace deal with the Farc rebels. A few months ago the Brexit vote sent shockwaves through Europe. For some commentators the referendum is inappropriate as a democratic instrument. Others warn against demonising referendums as a political institution.

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La Vanguardia (ES) /

When irrationality wins the day

2016 will go down in history as the year of senseless referendums, La Vanguardia predicts:

“The year 2016 is turning out to be full of electoral perplexities. The referendums win the prize here - not so much in themselves but because of their results. The British chose to leave the EU without any regard for the consequences, judging by the reactions to the result. On Sunday the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán won a referendum that is invalid - the turnout was too low - and that was aimed at stoking the most xenophobic instincts. And further turbulence is ahead: in December the Italians will decide whether their head of government Matteo Renzi remains in office in the referendum on constitutional reform. At the moment it is always the unpredictable and senseless option that wins.”

Jyllands-Posten (DK) /

Politicians shirking responsibility

Referendums are simply not an appropriate democratic tool, Jyllands-Posten posits:

“First of all it's clear that referendums are anything but a universal political cure-all. They can be abused, like in Hungary, or they can lead to unfortunate social divisions like the current one in Columbia. ... Advocates of referendums like to point to Switzerland as an example of a country where they work. ... But Switzerland is a special case because there's no real opposition to the so-called concordance system. ... Referendums must be held when the constitution stipulates they should, as a rule when the issue is ceding sovereignty to the EU or amending the constitution. In almost all other cases, particularly concerning individual issues, they're a way of shirking responsibility. In democracies we have proper parliaments. And they must shoulder their responsibilities.”

Libération (FR) /

Elections can go wrong too

Referendums play a key role in the democratic process, political scientist Yves Sintomer counters in Libération:

“When Orbán holds a referendum, people say it's a dangerous tool. By the same reasoning, when Orbán was elected you could have said elections are a dangerous tool: you see how easily they can put an authoritarian politician at the head of a state and transform the political regime? And the same goes for Turkey and Erdoğan's election. So does that mean we should abolish elections? We forget all the other cases where referendums are held year in year out, without it causing any disasters. ... People can vote guided by emotion. They can be wrong. But so can political elites.”