Saturday, 15 February 2014

On Referenda: Switzerland and immigration, 2014

On Sunday 9th February, Switzerland held a referendum on imposing a quota on immigration and opposing the free movement of workers between the EU and Switzerland. The political party that sponsored the vote, the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), won by just 0.6% - 50.3% of participants supported the measure - meaning that in three years time the Swiss government must either renegotiate or revoke the agreement with the EU that allows the free movement of people, or revoke the agreement. In addition to setting quotas, it also means that the government will impose limits on the ability of immigrants to bring their families to live in Switzerland, to access social security benefits and to request asylum. It is the latest expression of worrying right-wing anti-immigration sentiment that has been growing across Europe.

Advocates of referenda believe that they offer a solution to the problems of modern representative democracy, enabling citizens to encounter the power and enlightenment associated the a more direct form of participation. Referenda are valued because they apparently fulfil the criteria of democratic politics and political communication: They are dialogical because they encourage participation between elections; and they are far more representative than opinion polls which rely on generalising from small samples of respondents. Elections are useful in deciding which political party should form a government, but are limited as a method of consulting public opinion, principally because voters do not enjoy an opportunity to register their views between elections, and because we are asked to vote for a complete party package, not decide our preferences on individual issues. Finally, many electoral systems allow governments to win by a minority of votes cast; can we therefore conclude that they are truly representative? 

In addition, referenda are thought to circumvent other potentially powerful institutions that are poised between citizens and their government, including parties, pressure groups and the media; and finally referenda are considered educative (รก la John Stuart Mill) because they encourage governments and other groups supporting a referendum to provide as much information as possible about very specific issues. If the voters are expected to register their preference (there is usually only 'a' preference which requires the voter to answer 'yes' or 'no') on a complicated issue, then it is attendant upon the opposing sides to communicate their position fully and in an accessible way. If the technicalities are not communicated in such a way that electors will understand the issues, how can they be expected to be sufficiently interested to participate? In this view, referenda are anti-elitist and democratic, and therefore require simplification.

And this is the primary danger with referenda - that a campaign will OVER simplify an issue, thus persuading voters to respond according to their emotions rather than reason. This is a particularly serious possibility in the modern age of political advertising and the prevalence of the sound-bite culture. Moreover, a referendum campaign seeks to maximise voters; numbers are more important than arguments, and victory is measured by how many votes a campaign can marshal, not about its persuasiveness or ability to forge a consensus through reasoned argument. The educative and deliberative reason for holding them vanishes, and the referendum becomes a zero-sum game with winners and losers with hardened opinions, reinforced by a style of news coverage that mirrors the horse-race reporting of elections. In other words, referenda may actually devalue the very acts of political communication and participation they are though to encourage. They are merely another means of voting, and therefore do not facilitate the kind of participation so cherished by their advocates. In reporting the Swiss referendum on immigration, The Guardian (15 February 2014) noted:

Perhaps the most clever aspect of the SVP's strategy was that they rarely specified what kind of immigration they were talking about. "They won the vote when they were allowed to use the term 'mass immigration,' said George Sheldon ... "Who could possibly be for 'mass' anything"? (The Guardian)

The report describes the kind of emotional campaigning that induces fear and panic among voters: the SVP remained vague about the kind of 'mass immigration' they feared and from where these immigrants would flood into Switzerland. Most of the arguments 'employ the future tense: the referendum was above all ... about "people who could come to settle here"' (ibid.)

Even opposition politicians show some grudging respect for the SVP's campaign. "We underestimated them,' says ... Christoph Brutschin, a social democrat. "They ran a very polite campaign, so the opposition retaliated politely. Then, only a few days before the vote, out came the more populist posters with the women in veils" (ibid. Emphasis added). 

Referenda encourage populism and in this case, easy (lazy) stereotyping, and sometimes governments must defy public opinion in the long-term interests of the country. Effective political leadership leads, and though it should consult, it does not follow. Amendment 2 of Colorado's constitution, introduced by the initiative variety of referendum to curb the civil rights of homosexuals was subsequently overturned by the US Supreme Court, suggesting that 'elitism' may be a necessary safeguard against the dangers of populism. The complexity of arguments is reduced to easily communicated and registered images and labels that are familiar to students of propaganda.     
 
Referenda are themselves elitist: they are managed by governments, parties or political authorities that possess the power to decide which issues shall be put to a referendum, the form of the question asked, whether the vote will be decided by a simple majority or by a minimum turnout, and when the referendum shall take place. Perhaps referenda are merely used to achieve preferred outcomes or, more worryingly, to pass the responsibility for dangerous and irresponsible decision-making to voters.   


There is no empirical evidence to support the idea that citizens in democracies prefer to communicate their preferences through referenda than through other methods. In fact, it is possible to identify the influence of the Law of Diminishing Returns - the more of something one has, the less satisfaction it yields - because there appears to be a direct correlation between the frequency of referenda and falling turnout. Even in Switzerland, referenda capital of the world, turnout is hardly spectacular: In a national referendum in February 2003, 70.3% voted in favour of extending the range of issues on which the Swiss could have a say. However, that was 70.3% of a 28% turnout. Even in referenda on issues of national importance, such as the ending of Swiss neutrality and membership of the United Nations in March 2002, only 58% bothered to vote. In the February 2014 referenda on immigration, the turnout was only 55.8%. Just over half of those who had a right to vote did so, and half agreed with the proposition, meaning that a small number of Swiss have decided the future of immigrants, their families, and Switzerland's position in the EU.

To summarise, the appeal of referenda derives from their essence of democratic legitimacy; decisions are considered more legitimate if they have been arrived at by soliciting popular opinion. Hence, referendums are a device of political communication that are thought to encourage participation and facilitate open and transparent government. However, their success depends on voter interest and participation - why should we assume that voters will be any more inspired by referenda than they are by elections? - the quality of information that is provided by both sides in a campaign, and the news coverage of the referendum. In short, we cannot expect referenda to reproduce the conditions and effects of a direct form of democracy. At best, they are a useful but flawed device of political communication; at worst, they are an expression of ill-informed populism.