Referenda and Plebiscites

June 27th, 2016 Sections: From an Expat, Government and Politics, News

Ballot boc

When asked certain types of questions, my usual response is “I don’t do politics” … or … “Sorry, but that’s between me and the ballot box” … however, I suppose that the events of the last week – and today’s anniversary – are such that it is difficult to escape or evade some sort of comment.

The event’s of the last week? – The so called Brexit Referendum on wether Britain should remain in the European Union … or not.

Today’s Anniversary? – it was on this day back in 2010 that Kyrgyzstan held a referendum seeking approval for a new constitution and government to be headed by Rosa Otunbaeva as an Interim President following the violent revolution earlier in the year.

Indeed, it has been difficult to escape discussion of the Brexit Referendum … being a Brit, everyone seems to want to learn ‘my take’ on the results – what do I think?

I suppose I ought to come clean and say that, IF I had been able to cast a vote, then I would have voted to remain in the European Union … and that should come come as no big surprise to people who know me – even if only through these postcards.  Although I am an Englishman, (a Brit – British), I also consider myself as a European, and (ultimately) a member of the human race who has chosen to live and work far from Albion’s shores where I was born and brought up.  I may be proud of my country, my culture and my heritage … but I see myself as just a member of a number of intersecting and overlapping communities … each with their own contribution to make to the general, greater good.  As such my decision would have been based on a number of arguments … and I won’t mention all of them, but they would have included issues of: Principle, Practicalities  and Consequences – but let’s not dwell on that for now. 

As it happens, it’s all very academic what I think … being resident here in Kyrgyzstan, I don’t have a vote back in the UK … not even a Protest Vote … and haven’t for the last twenty years.

For the record: that’s not quite true … I did, once, register for a postal vote but the ballot paper arrived the day before Polling, and had to be returned by 10pm the following day … and there was no way that it was going to arrive on time – so I missed out on that occasion.  On a subsequent occasion, I applied for a Proxy vote … delegating a friend to cast my vote for me.  They’ve changed the rules since then and it’s not clear to me if I could even have registered to vote or not …

Now, I understand and appreciate that there are people who don’t agree with me … who don’t see things the way that I see them … and that they have arguments on which they base their decision as to how they should cast their vote.

In theory we have to “agree to disagree”.

That’s the point about a Referendum … It’s a plebiscite – a question put to the electorate as a whole to vote upon … and, (although there are some differences in different countries – in Switzerland, for example), a referendum is usually thought of as a special case of plebiscite … a vote where a single political question of fundamental (constitutional) importance is referred to the electorate for a direct decision … instead of having that decision taken ‘indirectly’ … by elected representatives.

Some people are going to vote for the resolution on the ballot paper – others against it.  There are bound to be ‘winners and losers’ – except in the case where a decision is adopted unanimously and nobody votes against the winning proposal.  Depending upon the threshold that is set for accepting a decision ‘of the the people’ … the size of the disappointed, dissatisfied, losing party can be anything from 0 – in the unlikely event of a unanimous decision up to almost 50% of those who cast a vote – where the winning margin is very slight – maybe just 1 vote.

Unpalatable as it seems, that’s how the system works … some people are going to be happy with the result … others not.

In some parts of the world, however, such plebiscites are employed for other, more general – even more mundane, everyday issues … but, to be honest, they are not really a British tradition.  In our version of democracy  it is the responsibility of Parliament, (the elected representatives in the House of Commons together with the hereditary and appointed members of the House of Lords), to make policy decisions and legislate accordingly.  Appealing direct to the people for a decision, and thus bypassing the Parliament, is a fairly recent innovation – the first such referendum being held in 1973 to consider sovereignty issues associated with Northern Ireland.

As such, referenda tend to be reserved for placing fundamental constitutional issues to the people for a decision … such as whether or not to establish a new form of local government for parts of the country – for Scotland, Wales, or Norfthern Ireland … or whether to belong to the Common Market or the European Economic Community as the European Union used to known.

Referenda are often criticized as a populist approach to issues.  Calling for a referendum is a populist move … the arguments presented simplify complicated issues into terms that can be understood by the masses … who are often driven by emotion rather than analytical logic.  They usurp the rightful authority of other governmental bodies … such as Parliament.

In this particular case, Brexit, the winning margin was clear, but small, (however, just 1 vote would have sufficed as a winning margin), and achieved a majority vote of 52% on a turnout of just 70% … meaning that just 36% of the electorate voted for the course of action that will decide the fate of the country … a fate which can/will have far reaching and unforeseen implications, not just for Britain and Europe … but possibly reaching much further afield as well.

On the one hand, I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us too much, as most governments in Britain have only received something like a 35% share of the vote … and results of 90% always look suspicious anyway … but it is hardly a ringing endorsement for the use of referenda … and perhaps more importantly, it exposes a divided – a polarized – and confused society … and does not bode well for the future.


Here in Kyrgyzstan, the Referendum is used – as it is in Britain – to put to the population as a whole some important fundamental constitutional questions … usually to approve constitutional amendments … although provisions exist for other questions to be referred to the people in certain circumstances.

Since Independence there have been eight referenda – mainly to approve constitutional amendments … particularly following the revolutions in 2005 and 2010 which sought to address weaknesses of the existing system that had been exposed as a result of those revolutions.

The one held on 27th June 2010 was intended to reduce the powers of the Presidency and strengthen democracy in the wake of the riots earlier in the year which led to the downfall of the regime of Kurmanbek Bakiev … and to approve the appointment of Roza Otunbaeva as the Interim President who would oversee Parliamentary and Presidential elections.

Following the revolution, there was a period of considerable uncertainty and instability with further civil unrest which erupted on 10th June in violent protests and riots in the South of the country … with hundreds of people dying, many more injured, extensive property damage and concerns about the future of the country.  Despite this background, it was decided to press ahead with the referendum and appeals for calm were issued.  As it happens, everything was calm … the turn out was about 90%, (although much in the South), with almost 92% of the votes cast approving the new constitution and interim President.

I dare say, those behind the Brexit Referendum (on both sides) would have been delighted with a 90% turn out and a 92% winning vote …

In some ways, it looked like a ‘rubber stamp’ decision … like many of those that had come before it … and it is true that it might well have been born out of adversity and fear of potential future instability … but international observers generally expressed satisfaction that the process had been fair and transparent.

The general impression was that it was a successful example of democracy in action.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that the same can said of Brexit.




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