How not to hold a referendum

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Tourism remains a major part of the Greek economy. Cruise ship, Piraeus. [Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Flickr]

Referendums need clarity, which means outlining the consequences of each voting option. In the Greek referendum, none of these best practices are met, writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British born political scientist working as Director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This piece is based on an interview given by the author on FM4 Radio, Austria, on 30 June.

Motives for holding a referendum vary, but usually have little to do with wishing to give citizens greater empowerment through participation. They can result from intra-party differences, such as within the Labour Party< and the referendum in the UK on the European Common Market of 1975, constitutional obligations, or pressure resulting from an election promise (Scottish independence referendum).

A government-initiated referendum with the aim of seeking confirmation from the electorate can occasionally backfire, as with the referendum in Ireland in 2013 on abolishing the Senate. In a surprise vote the Irish people voted against government plans to do away with the second chamber.

In the UK, an electoral commission manages referenda, and has stated that “the question must be clear, it must not be misleading; it must not suggest an answer; electors must be informed of the effects of the referendum; voters must be able to answer the questions asked solely by yes, no or a blank vote”. Guidelines are issued on framing the question which should be kept short. IE about 15 to 20 words and avoid technical terms. The question should be easy to understand and unambiguous, and avoid encouraging a foregone response. The Commission can take ten weeks or more to test the possible question.

The Quebec referendum of 1995 posed a long-winded question and referred to concepts such as sovereignty and a new economic and political partnership with little explanation. Afterwards, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled on the so-called “clarity question”.

Clarity does not mean just posing a simple question but also outlining clearly the consequences of each option.

In the case of the upcoming Greek referendum none of these best practices are met. The question is long and cites documents technical in nature. The “No” option comes above the “Yes”, unusual in such ballots. There is scarcely time to print the papers let alone conduct an informed debate in the country and interpretations abound both in Greece and outside as to what is really at stake. In the current hostile economic climate, voters may even be unable to return to home constituencies to vote through lack of money or petrol. In the event of a close result the democratic legitimacy of the referendum could be called into question leading to protests.

Whereas the Scottish referendum last year can be cited as a model for the conduct of a referendum, this vital one on the future of Greece and Europe must surely classify as an anti-model.

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