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When direct democracy is pushed to its limits

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London for the Brexit vote Reuters

Direct democracy can be overwhelming and even dangerous, or so some people now would have you believe after Britain's vote in June to leave the European Union. How do the Swiss implement decisions that have been taken by the people?

This content was published on July 6, 2016 - 14:26
Bruno Kaufmann,

Turnout in the British referendum on June 23 was a record high: more than 72% of the 46 million people eligible to cast their vote did so. And the result was dramatic: Britain is the first country to leave the EU (with the exception of Greenland, which voted to leave the EU's predecessor, the European Economic Community, in 1985), and it’s caused people across Europe to question if there are limits to democracy.

This text is part of #DearDemocracy,’s platform on direct democracy.

In a nutshell: In Brexit’s wake, aspects of democracy come under fire – but what the event really shows is the need for more practice and co-determination, not less.

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In an article in the Guardian newspaper for example, Belgian author David Van Reybrouck, commented that although democracy generally entails putting our trust in elected representatives, people are often ill-informed, manipulated and do not have the chance to ”engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future”.

He questions whether sortition, where a group of people are brought together to learn about a certain issue and then decide on a course of action, could bring about more satisfactory outcomes to difficult issues.

Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff wrote in the Boston Globe newspaper, that the “real lunacy” of the Brexit vote was not that it had taken place, but that only a simple majority was required for the decision to be taken. “This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.”

Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) also said that such an ”enormous” decision had been made ”without any appropriate checks and balances”.

Protecting democracy from the people

In the widespread and noisy reaction to the Brexit decision reverberating around the world, less is being said about doubts surrounding the context and the process of the referendum than about basic criticism of democracy.

Or, as Indian columnist Rajeev Srinivasan wrote in the online version of the First Post: ”Democracy is too important to be left to the people”.

The cry of the elitist post-democrats (a small elite which takes the tough decisions) stands in stark contrast to the populists, who pride themselves on being close to the ”real” people, on the edges of mainstream politics.

These people take very little notice of the political separation of powers and would like to put absolute power in the hands of the sovereign people. These rightwing populists, such as the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, are celebrating the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Even in Switzerland, a country that takes great pride in its direct democracy, there has been debate over the process sparked by the widely derided nationwide votes in 2009 to ban construction of new minarets and in 2014 to curb immigration from the EU.

And the same points are raised time and time again, as in Rogoff’s article, that the people were poorly informed and the media did a bad job.

How to proceed

Of course, it’s natural that the losing side in these kind of situations feels hard done by. It is not very productive however, to question a political system that has been around for centuries, just because of the result of one vote.

In addition, high emotions and impatience often stand in the way of those advocating reforms.

A more fruitful approach would be to take seriously of the global trend towards more co-determination in the form of people’s rights – including votes on political issues –  putting them in the context of a representative democracy. This has to take into account key principles, procedures and their application.

What is important is to uphold the rights of the individual and the rights of minorities in a state under rule of law. Giving complete sovereignty to the people is just as counterproductive as taking decision making power completely away from the people and putting it entirely into the hands of an elite group. But, to understand how all of these elements can work in harmony together needs practice. And lots of it. The end result of the Brexit decision cannot be: fewer votes. On the contrary: ”It should be, many, many more”, as editorial in a major German newspaper put it.

A time to learn

One conclusion we can draw from the Brexit vote is that even an important decision taken by the people, can be seen as a ’pre-decision’. It is never a question of ”life or death”, but ultimately only ”a bit more of this or a bit less of that”.

The losing side has every right to continue fighting for their cause and the winning side has every right to reconsider and change its mind.

The uproar and panic after the Brexit vote may be understandable to some extent, but it won’t do much good.

In reality, these decisions take a long time to come into being, as we have seen in Switzerland in the years since the country narrowly voted for a cap on mass immigration from the EU in 2014.

Time is important. It allows people to discuss, deliberate and learn. And this creates the foundation for future decisions.

Bruno Kaufmann is an expert on direct democracy and acts as editor-in- chief of the people2power platform, created an hosted by He also works as correspondent for Northern Europe for Swiss public radio and is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and co-chair of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy.

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