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More direct democracy will not solve the problems

17 Mar 2016 - 12:47
Source: © Arnold Vonk

Jan Marinus Wiersma has several objections to the Dutch referendum law.

Most countries that claim to be democracies have multiparty systems. The two are like Siamese twins. Although many of them regularly use referenda to offer the voters a direct choice, the representative role of parties and parliaments is not contested. If they are under threat it is often from within – from populist parties who attack the traditional elites profiting from but also promoting dissatisfaction amongst the public. This is obviously the situation in a country like the Netherlands.

It puts heavy strains on the mainstream political parties who have to adapt to a new political environment, which is characterised by high voter volatility, low trust in politics and resistance to compromise. The public discourse has also changed – it is tougher, less respectful and less tolerant – and is being multiplied to a very large extent by the social media. Recent research however also shows that a large majority of the Dutch are satisfied with the democratic system of the country as such. Their objections are directed to those who manage it: politicians.

Revitalise the role of parties
The best reaction in my view is not the rejection of the multi-party system, but rather a push to reform it and to revitalise the role of parties. We should at least give that a try. We cannot let things rest. To replace representative democracy completely with direct democracy, as has been argued by some in Holland, will not solve the problems. Our societies are too complex – unlike ancient Athens. Not everything can be translated in yes/no votes and we cannot have referenda based on informed debates every day – or every hour if we started to use the internet extensively.

But nevertheless, more and more often traditional parties are seeing referendums as a democratic tool to compensate for the diminished credibility of parties and their intermediate function. In my view, this is not unproblematic and can even be counterproductive. In my country the referendum has been used at the local level with various levels of success, for example, it is often a challenge to reach the threshold for participation. In 2005, however, after an intense national debate more that 60% of the population turned out for the national referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty, out of which 60% voted against the agreement. Since then there has been new legislation that creates the possibility of a corrective referendum, which would go into effect if the public submits a petition with at least 300,000 signatures. If a majority (and with a 30% turnout) then vote no, the government will have to reconsider the law or treaty.

Europe-widely referendums
The first referendum to take place under the new legislation was the EU association treaty with Ukraine. The initiators of this referendum cleverly used the internet to garner sufficient signatures, essentially campaigning on an anti-EU ticket. A lively debate between protagonists and opponents of the treaty is to be expected, drawing the general public into the debate on the EU’s external relations and its enlargement policy. But treaties should be excluded from national referenda in my view as they are usually the result of long multilateral negotiations. What I could imagine are unwieldy, Europe-wide referendums on important EU decisions.

Our referendum process is further problematic because the present Dutch law only allows a referendum on a new piece of legislation or a treaty, which means that a lot of relevant issues cannot be addressed. I for example have always been in favour of a national vote on the introduction of elected mayors – which is not the case in The Netherlands. The law does not allow that. And I would be in favour of expanding the rights of citizens to introduce proposals to be included on the agenda of the government - so not only the possibility to correct but also to initiate.

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This article was previously published on 21sParties.com.