The problem with plebiscites


referendumThe unanticipated and widely debated results in Colombia and Great Britain – indeed, the very decision to use the mechanism of popular consultation to identify the citizenry’s will – obliges us to reflect on the future of democratic systems, says Roberto Saba, Professor of Constitutional Law and Human Rights at the Universidad de Palermo.

Both the British and Colombian plebiscites can be understood as the consequence, not the cause, of a crisis in representative democracy that affects not just these two countries but many others around the world, he writes:

There are many ways to make, validate, and build consensus around fundamental constitutional decisions: parliamentary super-majorities in Chile, constitutional assemblies in Argentina, or state legislature approval in Mexico and the United States…In some, such as the current Chilean process designed by Michelle Bachelet’s administration, the people themselves are called to deliberate constitutional choices in public forums. And yet in the Colombian and the British cases, the government chose the riskiest of all known methods for identifying popular constitutional will. In this kind of process, complex questions are put forth in a way that makes it seem quite simple, because they must be answered in a single word: yes or no.

BrexitConstitutional decisions, which is to say the decisions political communities make rarely but carefully over the course of their history – what Bruce Ackerman calls “constitutional moments” – cannot be decided by plebiscite, argues Saba, who is affiliated with Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS, Argentina), a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.

The popular will is too elusive for us to fool ourselves into thinking we can capture it with a single question, he suggests.


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