Referendum democracy?
bolivia | by Miguel Centellas | 28 Feb, 2004 at 11:49 AM | comments (30) | trackback (0)

As Bolivia's gas referendum approaches, many are hailing the birth of referendum democracy. I'm not convinced that referendum democracy is desireable or even a solution to the country's problems. For all its strengths, referendum democracy — in practice — has important drawbacks. It increases the power of bureaucracies. It reduces the scope of participation to small minorities. It reduces the quality & depth of debate on issues.

First, because referendums require a specifically worded question, and because (as social scientists who study survey methodology point out) question wording & order (if more than one question is used) influence responses, the true power in referendum democracy rests w/ whoever drafts the referendum. What that means is that small bureaucracies — whether state or private — have strong incentives to draft referendum questions in ways that increases the likelihood of a desired outcome.

Second, any political issue has various levels of interest for citizens. That is, some citizens may greatly object to policy A, while some citizens strongly support it. But a large number of citizens may be indifferent. Thus, citizens w/ greater interest in an issue (one way or another) have strong incentives to seize control of the issue and "frame" it on their terms — hoping to turn votes in their favor. And because whoever frames the issue has an upper hand in any referendum election, their are strong incentives for any special interest minority to seize control of the bureaucracy which drafts referendum.

Third, because referendums tend to reduce policy questions to a "yes" or "no" format, the issue tends to be debated in only a rudimentary way. In contrast, parliaments have the resources (primarily time & information) to debate issues in more complex debates that can lead to multiple outcomes, not just "yes" or "no." The average citizen, on the other hand, has limited resources on any issue. Why? Because the average citizen works, spends time w/ family & friends, and has a host of other interests vying for attention. For the average citizen, information costs (the time & effort needed to become familiar w/ a complex, technical issue) are especially high.

These three things combine to make referendum democracy less attractive, in many ways, than representative democracy. Although citizens can freely decide on the issue — making the decision more participatory — they are held hostage by small minorities who "push" voters in different directions. Most notably, voters are left w/ deciding an issue in the most simplistic of terms. Voters don't actually have the right to express their individual, ideal policy preference — their right to participate is reduced to expressing whether they agree or not w/ the policy as presented by the small minority which drafted the referendum question.

In countries like Bolivia, were a significant portion of the electorate is illiterate, voting on referendum questions has other, more obvious, difficulties. Worse, referendum questions are often worded in very complex ways. Even in states w/ higher average education levels, voters often admit difficulty understanding what a "yes" vote means.

This doesn't mean, of course, that referendums shouldn't be used; they certainly do have their place. But one should be cautious about their use. At the very least, referendums can't entirely replace representative institutions. True, representative democracy greatly reduces the scope of direct citizen participation. But in a healthy democracy, representatives should pay close attention to the wishes of their constituents — after all, their re-election depends on overall voter satisfaction.

I don't pretend that Bolivia's democracy is a "healthy" representative system. But I think the solution — in the long term — is to find ways to improve the representative system, especially by increasing accountability & transparency. As the development of the gas referendum has shown, referendum democracy doesn't necessarily help. The gas referendum has been drafted in secret, w/ little transparency or accountability, by a small state bureaucracy appointed to "study" the issue.

" comments

I agree that the referendum is a complex issue. Everyone wants to know what the question will ultimately be. Unfortunately, the campesino groups and some radical groups have used rallying mottos with some success. "El gas no se vende!" (with or without the "carajo!"). I think the moderates should find a catch phrase of their own, because I think this gas issue with the right spin could pass easily.

For instance, I know Goni pushed the "Obras con Empleos" as one of his campaign foundations. However, no one really knew or understood where the funds for these public works projects would come from. I believe he was counting on lending institutions to come up with the funds.

Now that there are rumblings that the gas deal with Mexico and California is not dead, I think this can breathe new life into this project. They should specify where the funds from the gas sale will go to. If the referendum question is linked directly with the creation of new jobs for the building of infrastructure, gas lines for domestic use, etc., I think people will have more confidence in the project.

So if someone mentions that they are voting "no" on the gas question, you can reply back, "what? you're against creating jobs for Bolivians?"

Posted by eduardo | March 4, 2004 01:25 PM

I think the government'll write the referendum to stack the deck in favor of gas exports. While I think that's the most logical course of action (exporing gas), it's important to note the way the referendum is going forward — and remember that when suggesting that referendum democracy is somehow superior to representative democracy.

Posted by miguel | March 4, 2004 01:29 PM

I just read your article in today's Digital Edition of La Razón. It's very good, I hope it gets the attention of people since it is a very important issue. I personally think we have to export gas but we ought to preserve at all costs the legitimacy and impartiality of the referendum so as to not loose credibility over time.

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