In the future, June 23 may be seen as a tipping point, as Great Britain voted in a plebiscite-referendum on the general question of whether the country should remain or leave the European Union. A majority voted for leave, which created gigantic political and economic waves across the globe. With presidential offices in China and the US forced to comment on the result, Brexit may have won the most attention of any referendum in history.
In the slipstream of post-Brexit-eruptions, another kind of debate has emerged. It is about modern direct democracy, and asks, should the people be allowed to make such far-reaching decisions at the ballot box? And if the answer to that question is yes, under which rules should such votes be possible? And what kind of modern direct democracy should the world adopt?
Brexit is only the third-ever UK-wide popular vote in British history, and it posed mamu many questions about when and how indirect legislation by an elected parliament should be decided by a popular vote. The voting, as an administrative matter, was conducted in an exemplary way by civil servants and polling station volunteers across the UK. But the vote came in a very difficult political and legal framework that has given people many reasons to offer legitimate and critical assessments of the process.
The UK does not have a constitution as other countries, where the principles and key procedures of referenda are defined (even though it has used direcdt popular votes on issues more often – beside the three UK-wide, 11 nationwide and 61 local ones since the millenium .
The problem with the plebiscites
So it is left up to the elected Prime and First Ministers to decide when and how the people shall have a say. This plebiscitarian form of ”direct democracy” is also popular in much less democratic countries than the UK but it has severe drawbacks, in that it offers politicians and powerful interests many ways to manipulate the vote. And these plebiscite-style ”referendums” often produce a backlash against the initiator of the referendum (in Brexit’s case, Prime Minister David Cameron) and can offer a platform for demagogic and populistic movements.
Brexit was a superb example of al of these problems. No wonder did some of the losers in the June 23decision immediately start a petition to both reverse the vote as such and to propose a change in the rules, demanding supermajorities of 60% approval rate combined with a 75% turnout quorum. A few days after the referendum, this petition to Westminster had gathered more than three million supporters.
Beyond Great Britain, an ugly debate continued over the referendum and its impact. Similar, not too helpful posts in the debate were raised beyond Great Britain. Populist and xenophobic parties across the EU, including Dutch party leader Geert Wilders, French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen and the Swedish post-fascists immediately jumped on the Brexit train to praise the ”victory of democracy” in Britain and to demand similar votes in their own countries on leaving the EU. The endorsements of the populist right has triggered its own backlash, with others questioning the very idea of popular votes on issues. This referendum skepticism was led by the formerly pro-participation newspaper Economist and echoed by pressured political leaders across the EU. The Global Times, the english-edition of the official newspaper by the Chinese Communist party summarized: ”By employing a referendum, the Cameron government opened a window of opportunity for direct democracy. Not a wise decision.“ The forecast from Beijing: „The Western world will have to reflect on liberal democracy and social Darwinism.“
Luckily, the debate is not dominated by these understandable, predictable and opportunitistic contributions by both populists, anti-populists and democracy critics. Across the globe, the Brexit attention has instead invited thinkers and citizens activists alike to look beyond the current controversy and to think about their own democracies. And many voices are welcoming the very idea of involving citizens more directly into the decisionmaking process.
The Asian-Pacific magazine the Diplomat underlined that the ”take-away from Brexit, shouldn’t be a hardening of contempt for popular will and the one-person-one-vote principle that underwrites all forms of modern democracy, but to continue to expect politicians to be politicians.“ In the Tokyo-based „Yomiuri Shimbun“, editors used Brexit as an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons of referendums in Japan.
Similarily a Nigerian business magazine, the „Ventures Africa,“ wonders if time for more direct democracy has come to Africa’s most populous country. And in Canada, political leaders from various parties have welcomed the debate on how referendums and direct democracy should be strengthened, in connection with a forthcoming popular vote on a electoral reform.
In addition to the back and forth in traditional media, individuals and groups worldwide have joined the conversation on the merits of more direct democracy on social media networks including Twitter and Facebook. This conversation is complemented by new efforts across Europe and the world to discuss the future of transnational governance structures and their democratic legitimacy — as it relates not only to the European Union and other continental unions but also to free trade agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) .
The very fact of Brexit offers another lesson: that for real progress and pro-active efforts you need some real crisis and drama, thus engaging far more people in the political process and in the key questions of modern direct democracy.
By Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International and Editor-in-chief of People2power, where this article was published first.