Renzi and Cameron: A Shame for Courageous Democrats

Attention! Danger of collapse! Citizens are responsible for their democracy!

I will miss Matteo Renzi as much as David Cameron. Just when I was beginning to appreciate them for their courage as regards fundamental referendums, this courage cost them their office. Direct democracy unfortunately loses with them.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to judge the voting behaviour of people from other countries from afar. I am either one of those who are eligible to vote and passionately discuss issues with others and those who think differently or, as an outsider, I accept the will of a people – whether I like it or not.

Because of this attitude, I find it difficult to judge the Italian constitutional referendum and the referendum on the exit of the British from the EU. The people will have had their reasons and for me, as a supporter of direct democracy, the most important point is: the voters themselves have to bear responsibility for their decision in any case.

However, I deeply regret the fact that, as a result of the two referendums, two heads of government, whose sense for active democracy and whose courage should have earned them better, had to step down. Both bravely faced the referendums. They argued for their objective, fought, stood opposite opponents who used the many disappointed citizens for their objectives and spurred them on as a protest against the system of Rome or Brussels.

It is regrettable that, when voters wanted to punish a crippled, paralysed and undemocratic system, they actually punished precisely those politicians who would have wanted to change it.

David Cameron wanted to break Great Britain’s inner blockades against the EU. With a clear „yes“, he would have gained both freedom to negotiate and support. It was a brave move to allow his EU-sceptic Brits to vote and to try and persuade them with arguments instead of deciding on EU policy in Downing Street, as his predecessors did. As such, he put his political future on the line – with the referendum that he wanted. Not with EU policy per se.

It was similar with Matteo Renzi: in terms of policy, his constitutional reform may have been disputed, rightly or wrongly. In order to be workable, the right step would have been to disempower the senate; but instead of the senate, it would have been better if he had presented another supervisory authority, ideally instruments of direct democracy.

But still: finally an Italian head of government thought of something against the political paralysis of the country, against the paralysis which has led many to so many Italians turning to the protest parties. If his reforms had been a bad idea, the result of the referendum could be considered justified.

However, if the analysts’ view that many voters only wanted to punish the system is correct, in actual fact they only punished the individual who wanted to change the system and involve the population thereby.

What can politicians learn from this? If they do not even ask the people, the response is protest. Or do they follow Angela Merkel and provide the people with facts, remain silent and wait as, by the time of the next election, everything will already be forgotten?

The consequences of the failure of David Cameron and Matteo Renzi are a setback for direct democracy.

This form of citizen participation is a matter close to my heart for one particular reason: not because the people are always right, no: of course the people will time and again make decisions which they later regret. Of course referendums on burning issues can be held, on hot potatoes which should rather be handled very very carefully by especially responsible politicians; topics which we want to keep away from populistic propaganda.

But in this manner we are sparing the people from themselves and preventing a positive development, namely the assumption of responsibility.

I support direct democracy because it teaches voters responsibility. The argument that voters could make mistakes does not speak against direct democracy but rather actually for it in the longer term.

If the voters feel that nobody wants to „protect“ them from the consequences of their decisions, then a development occurs which produces interested and committed voters who are able to make decisions, which will make them immune to the trend which we today want to protect them from by means of paternalism: a population which is politically mature and far-sighted as a result of direct democracy is immune to populism.

Translation German-English: Donna Stockenhuber


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Attention! Danger of collapse! Citizens are responsible for their democracy! Attention! Danger of collapse! Citizens are responsible for their democracy! Mehr Demokratie CC BY-SA 2.0