On Referendum

The timing of yesterday’s post was fitting to say the least as Slovenes will vote on a referendum on regions on Sunday. The logic of this particular referendum (or rather: the lack it) have been detailed here, here and especially here. But just to give you a slightly better picture of what had happened: The government was hell-bent on holding this referendum, because initially regional legislation failed to get parliamentary approval (tough luck – the legislation requires 2/3 majority and the coalition is nowhere near that number) and it desperately needs at least one major political scoop.

Mayor Janković calls for a boycott. Pengovsky diagrees (source)

But instead of giving a clear-cut question such as “are you in favour of creating (insert number) regions named (insert region names), each encompasing the following municipalities (insert municipalities) respectively“, the government opted to arbitrarily create some 13 “referendum areas” (which are to become regions), each with a different question concerning that particular region and nothing else.

So what we will be faced with on Sunday, will be a combination of 13 distinct referendum questions (plus two questions on region names) and – consequently – a zillion ways to twist and turn the results according to the government’s needs. But before we go there, let’s have a look at referendums in Slovenia

Mechanics of a referendum

The referendum is of a consultative nature, meaning that the result will have little or no legal cosequences. It would, however, be a political guideline for decisions pertaining the formation of regions. There is no census on the turnout, so technically, three people can vote and if two of them vote the same way, the referendum is passed. In Slovenia truth is often stranger than fiction and so it often happened that a very small number of people came to vote (traditonally, referendum turnout was about 30%), and so a mere 15% of the voters (the majority of the atendees) decided the referendum result. And finally, the result is calculated as a percentage of all valid votes, rendering the option of casting a blank ballot irrelevant, as a blank ballot will not be counted as a valid vote. This is an important deviation from the electoral legislation, where every ballot is counted, even those that are invalid, meaning that in elections you can cast an empty ballot and it will count in the 100% of the vote cast.

To give you an example, imagine a scenario with 100 voters, which vote both on a referendum and in elections. In both cases you only have to options (A and B) and 40 voters support option A, 30 support option B, while 30 cast an empty or otherwise invalid ballot. In an election, where all 100 votes cast count, the result would be 40% for option A and 30% for option B. In a referendum, however, option A would have received 57,15 % of the vote, and option B 42,85 % as only 70 votes would have counted.

Legitimacy of a referendum

Now, despite all the shortcomings, such a referenum is perfectly legal and legitimate. The question was asked and the people will vote. Or won’t. Those who will choose not to will have willingly put their fate in the hands of others. Which is not something you really want to do in a democracy, so attending a referendum (or any other vote, for that matter) is crucial if you want your policital actions and convictions to have at least some sort of effect on the way your country is ran.

When mathematics is in play I’m not the fastest of cats at the best of times (as proven on this blog on a number of occasions), but even I realise that under such rules of the game your decision not to vote means that you’ve actually cast two votes supporting the option you would not have supported anyhow.

Take our options A and B. You seriously don’t like option B, but couldn’t give a pair of fetid dingo’s kindeys about option A (or – as is mostly the case – you are convinced your vote doesn’t matter). Now: by not voting at all, you’ve not only substracted one vote from the total number of valid votes, but have also increased the number of votes for option B relative to the total number of votes

Reffering back to our example of a hundred votes (and a projected 30 percent turnout), this means that out of a hundred voters only 30 cast their vote. Say 12 of those support option A and 18 support option B. In this case option B (the one you really don’t like) gets 60 % of the vote, whereas option A loses with 40%. Just because you couldn’t be bothered to cast your vote.

Informed decisions

In comments to yesterday’s post Alex maintained that “referendums are never legitimate since people elect their representatives to make informed decisions on their behalf.”

This statement implies two notions which are in my opinion radically wrong. 1) If our elected leaders were to make informed decisions, the voters would have to make informed decision about electing their representatives. Since today’s democracy is based on soundbites, good looks populism and occasional wit, informed decisions are few and far between and even if they exist, they are subject to media interpretation and even manipulation. And 2) this statement implies that our elected representatives are an informed bunch of highly intelligent people who constantly ponder the big picture and the future of the country, even at their personal peril. Right… :mrgreen:

Referendums are no more and no less legitimate than any decision by the parliament or other representative body. In either case the decision must be both respected and subject to the mechanism of checks and balances.

This Sunday

Now, how does all of this translate to Slovenia? As noted in the begining, the government of Janez Janša has done pretty much everything to muddle the referendum. 13 distinct question (and two more) allow for no less than four hundred and fifty different combinations of results, according to the head of State Electoral Commission. Naturally, this was done intentionally and it shows that the government is far from certain of getting an overall positive result.

Sunday’s referendum is a slightly expensive introduction into an extremely bloody election campaign. How can I tell? By the fact that to date there has been no “referendum campaign”. Coalition parties – the very same which have called the referendum – have not posted a single banner, not a single second of airwaves was saturated with ads opposing or supporting the referendum question – nothing. Period. The fun will begin after the votes are in, as the battle for result interpretation will begin. Depending on the result, the government will either claim that the referendum was a success because a) most voters per region supported it, b) most voters nation-wide supported it or c) the referendum succeeded in enough regions to make it impossible to draw regions any other way. The opposition will naturally claim exactly the opposite.

Me? I will vote “no”. I think the only fair way to do it would be to ask every one about every region. Do I get a say on whether Primorska should be a single region or not? Should Koroška exist and is Central Slovenia a region or should it be split into Gorenjska and Dolenjska? I think I ought to have a say about it, because it does concern me. Not only from taxpayer’s point of view (where have my euros gone to?) but also because regions totaly redefine a way different levels of government communicate with citizens and because the government is putting yet another layer of authority between itself and the citizens. And finally, because I hate the fact that the one of the main aims of regions is creating refuges for politicians whose due-date is long past or (even worse) who shouldn’t ever have set foot in politics in the first place.

As odd as it may seem, PM Janez Janša and pengovsky agree on one thing. It is vital to get out the vote. Naturally we’re doing it for different reasons, but if the referendum itself is wrong, Ljubljana mayor Zoran Janković is even more wrong. He called for a boycott of the referendum, calling it a farce. Yes, it is a farce, and it will be held in three days. And if we all just sit on our asses and do nothing, the farce will become a reality (even more than it already is) and those who will remain at home will have no right to bitch about it afterwards.

If you’re eligible and either support regions or oppose them – get out there and vote on Sunday.

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Agent provocateur and an occasional scribe.

9 thoughts on “On Referendum”

  1. I agree on one thing: no matter of the opinion, go and express it on the referendum. Indifference bothers me deeply and allows people to get away with all sorts of nasty deeds. 🙁

    I disagree on one thing: why the heck should I tell other people in which region to live and how to call it? 😯 That’s their thing and they should have a say, not me.

  2. Because for the time being Slovenia is not a federal state and decisions on the constitutional fibre of the country (which regions are) affect all citizens.

    Or to put it in Miltonian terms – since it is your money that will be transfered to the undeveloped regions (and believe me, all but one will be undeveloped), don’t you feel you have a say on the isse?

    Always, always follow the money.

  3. Poulette: thx for commenting, I checked the term “federalism” and found out that I had meant “federalism” in its German usage, rather than its EU-usage, as explained in Wikipedia: In Europe, “federalism” is sometimes used to describe those who favor a stronger federal government (for example, with governance under the European Union) and weaker provincial governments. In federal nations of Europe (such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland) or South America (such as Argentina or Brazil), the term “strong federalism” usually means sub-national states having more power than the national (federal) government, in contrast with a centralist system.
    As for the “unionists”, it now turns out the term is not only non-existent in this field, it is also not necessary. 🙂

    The interesting thing about the L-Treaty is that it is supposed to give more power “to the people”, i.e. national parliaments, possibly pushing some of the responsibility in the direction of people’s chosen representatives?

  4. Well, our referendums are the most direct, insulting and the most spectacular way of conveying to us what the politicians really have us voters for – a bunch of witless stupidity-hungry easy-money sheep. The way the whole system of referendums is currently set-up and used, it is hard for me to even think about them let alone attend them, but you are right. Our constitution mentions direct democracy (referendums etc.) before representational and it should be the future of our political system – if only our politicians would let us have it…

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