Sunday, January 24, 2016

Referendum, "neverendum" and "preferendum"

That a binary sovereingty referendum is a bad idea in the globalized and multicultural XXI century is very well explained in the book by Peter Emerson "Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy." Since Quebec has lost the appetite for such referenda, only the United Kingdon remains addicted to it among developed democracies. Today in the BBC the leader of the Scottish nationalists has said that if the "in" vote wins in Scotland, and the "out" vote wins in the rest of the UK, in the soon to take place referendum on the participation of the country in the EU, then a new referendum on Scottish independence will become inevitable. My impression is that this "neverendum" dynamic will leave things more or less as they are now institutionally (whatever is the outcome of the votes), but that societies will end up more divided and pollarized, thus making the life easier for populists of the calibre of the Scottish nationalists and the UKIP. Referenda were tools adapted to the times of border instability between the two world wars in the XXth century. Even today, when they take place, they reflect disfunctional and desperate societies (the Balkans, Crimea), and are a symptom of a social illness rather than a remedy to heal the illness. Timothy Snyder explains in his book "Black Earth" (pp. 81-82) that when the Austrian government felt the pressure of Hitler just before the second world war, it called a referendum about the independence of Austria: "The days of March 9 and 10, 1938, were devoted to propaganda in favor of Austrian independence, over the radio, in the newspapers, and, following Austrian traditions, in signs painted on the streets of Vienna. The main propaganda slogan was simply Österreich -Austria." One day after, just before the referendum date, Austria had ceased to exist because the national government had decided not to resist Hitler's invasion. The next morning the "scrubbing parties" began. Members of the Austrian S.A. (one of Nazis' paramilitary bodies) "working from lists, from personal knowledge, and from the knowledge of passersby, identified Jews and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with brushes. (...) They were erasing a word that had been painted on Vienna's avenues only a few days before: "Austria." When the institutions of democracy are attacked, the attempt to restore them through sovereignty plebiscites is a symptom of weakness. Stable societies are the result of a basic consensus and international respect, of a mechanism that allows people to express their preferences through deliberative democracy: Emerson calls it "`preferendum".

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