Tuesday, May 31, 2005

And here's one I lost earlier

This blog is by no means alone in predicting dire consequences for referendums, the pollsters currently having a field day on the Dutch referendum.

A poll conducted by Maurice de Hond for Dutch TV on Saturday showed 57 percent of voters were against the constitution and the latest shows a clear majority for the "nee" camp of 59 percent.

Trailing along in the wake of Chirac, it is now Jan-Peter Balkenende's turn, as prime minister of the next lamb to the slaughter to issue "an urgent appeal to voters", this time imploring them to ignore the French result and make up their own minds.

However, Balkenende has perhaps left it a bit late to make his appeals, which seem to be having very little, if any, effect. He might have been better advised to have read a report published ten months ago, which we featured in this Blog.

Headed: "Why European citizens will reject the EU constitution", it was written by a Dutch academic, Claes H. de Vreese, who attempted to impose a rigid scientific discipline on referendum predictions.

In so doing, he carried out a complex statistical analysis of existing data, in order to isolate the most important issues that determine a result. He came up with three key variables which influence voting behaviour. These were: attitudes on immigration; economic outlook; and sentiments towards the national government.

Basically, those who express negative views on immigration; who are pessimistic about economic prospects; and/or do not support their current government, are more likely to vote "no" in a referendum. Of the three issues, it seems that "immigration" is the most important.

Putting these factors together, de Vreese wrote that the constitutional referendums "will result in a 'no' outcome under conditions of high levels of anti-immigration sentiments, pessimistic economic outlooks, and/or unpopularity of a government" - exactly the conditions which prevail in The Netherlands.

He thus concluded that any government calling for a referendum "must be very popular to compensate for the negative impact of economic pessimism and anti-immigration sentiments" in order to win the vote.

At the time the paper was published, I wrote that it was "essential reading for referendum campaigners". From all the current indications, however, it does not look as if Balkenende read it – otherwise, without even looking at the polls, he would have known he was going to lose.

In this context, I suppose, the prime minister can mark down his referendum on Wednesday – in the matter of a television chef – as "one I lost earlier".

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