Thursday, December 10, 2015

Must even the most complex of questions be reduced to a dichotomy?

Peter Emerson, director of the Borda Institute, summarizes in a recent article his ideas about referendums and similar binary decision-making processes in complex societies divided by identity and similar problems:
"Before the Edinburgh Agreement, the SNP advocated three options for the 2014 Scottish referendum: independence, devo-max and status quo. But Cameron reckoned his favourite, status quo, would win a two-option contest against independence. So binary it was. Many wanted devo-max; nobody voted for it because they couldn’t – it wasn’t on the ballot paper; yet it 'won'. Scotland’s referendum was used as ‘justification’ by those wanting separatism in Ukraine: not the Edinburgh Agreement bit, but the binary nature of the ballot.Thus the tragedy of the Balkans was repeated. In 1991, with wars already in Slovenia and Croatia, the EU's Badinter Commission insisted on referendums. As a result, there were umpteen plebiscites: a few were recognised; others, as in Herzeg-Bosna and the Sandżak, were not. But “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum,” (Oslobodjenje, Sarajevo’s now legendary newspaper, 7.2.1999). In 2002, a referendum was incorporated into the Machakos Protocol for South Sudan. Six months later, there was renewed violence in Darfur. After all, if one region can fight, hold a referendum, and thus gain its political objective, why not another? South Sudan has since imploded.  Was it wise to promote self-determination by referendum – in a word, Balkanisation – in Africa, a continent replete with borders geographical, historical and tribal? In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the people were united – young, old, male, female, Muslim and Copt. But then they held a referendum. Two-option voting is divisive. So they divided. And then they fought. In Iran, in 1953, 99.8 per cent voted for socialism. Ten years later, 99.9 per cent wanted capitalism. In ’79, they voted for an Islamic Republic, by (a mere) 99.3 per cent. In 2007, Venezuela held a constitutional referendum. In the first of two ballots, voters were asked to vote a single yes-or-no on a list of 33 questions; in the second, on 36. Both ballots were lost by 49 to 51 per cent. Must even the most complex of questions be reduced to a dichotomy? Stalinist results are not confined to non-western democracies: the majority in favour of the Northern Ireland border poll of 1973 was 99.7 per cent. As often happens, the majority votes in favour while the minority abstains (Crimean Tatars), boycotts (Northern Ireland nationalists), or resorts to violence (Bosnian Serbs). Where the communities are evenly balanced, as in Quebec in 1995, both sides do participate, but the outcome was in part determined by neither side. On matters of contention, then, majority voting is inadequate. As implied above, it often allows those in power to determine the question. Supposed democrats have thus abused the democratic process, but so too have unabashed dictators like Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Duvalier and Saddam Hussein."

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