Saturday, November 05, 2011

Democracy took a back seat

So easy is the assumption that, because referendums are part of the armoury of democracy, their deployment - as in last week when Papandreou pulled one from the hat -  necessarily  indicates that the democratic process is at work. But it ain't so. The referendum is but a tool, and the devil can use it as well.

Of course, we've had a similar argument before, with feeble-brained MEPs who aver that because they are elected, they are democratically elected. But because the EU parliament employs some of the processes common to democracies does not make it democratic. MEPs are elected – period. There is nothing democratic about them or the institution to which they belong.

And so to referendums. For them to be a valid democratic tool, some conditions must apply, the first of which is, quite obviously, that the issue must be one which is capable of being decided by a simple "yes/no" vote.

From there, though, it gets more complicated and interesting. Two closely related conditions must be satisfied: the issue must be clearly defined and the question put must fairly represent the issue, as defined, and not pick on some proxy issue.

Under most circumstances, the fact of a referendum should be well signalled in advance, not pulled out of a hat by a politician using it for tactical advantage. Thus, its use should be predictable, predicted and measured – used for settling a question, not as a political weapon.

Then, the referendum campaign should be of sufficient length to allow all the arguments to be aired, and to allow people to think about them – with all sides treated fairly and given opportunities to make their cases. Finally, the vote itself must be conducted honestly, efficiently and fairly.

Undoubtedly, there are other conditions which might have to be satisfied, but just going with these, we can take a look at the Papandreou effort.

Here, it was undoubtedly the case that acceptance of the bailout is amenable to a "yes/no" vote, and to that extent the issue was clearly defined. However, there was no such clarity about the question. In fact, there was none at all – it was not defined and the indications were that it would not address the headline issue.

As to being signalled in advance, here we have the clearest indication that the referendum was being used as a tactical ploy for what advantage it conferred to Papandreou, pulled out of a hat by him to settle a power struggle with his own political party. This was not a fair and honest attempt to consult the people.

Then, as the situation developed, it became clear that the already short time for the campaign was to be cut even more, making impossible any attempt to have a full debate on the issues. It was to be a rushed campaign, with the advantage going thereby to the government.

Looking at this rationally, therefore, it is very hard to argue that the Greek referendum, proposed last week was – or was intended to be – a democratic exercise. It was the action of a self-serving politician, calculated to his ends, not those of his people.

Misused, then, as this was, the referendum is the tool of the demagogue, and used to great effect it was by that most evil of men, Adolf Hitler.

Predictably, on this occasion, the EU – and specifically the Merkozy – abreacted to the idea of a referendum, but then to charge them with "anti-democratic" behaviour does not confer the mantle of "democratic" on the Papandreou ploy. In truth, democracy took a back seat last week – this was a battle of the political √©lites.

The people were never in the game.