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Jan 2012 Journal

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Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ (‘I fear Greeks even when bearing gifts’), warns the Trojan priest Laocoön in Virgil’s Aeneid, in a vain attempt to deter the citizens of Troy from accepting the wooden horse that the besieging Greek forces have seemingly left as a gift, but which is in reality intended to bring about the destruction of the city. The ancient Greeks bequeathed the concept of democracy to the world, but their modern counterparts have recently helped to give currency to a more questionable popular (not to say populist) device, the plebiscite or referendum.

Forms of parliamentary self-government, in which the people entrust their elected representatives with the responsibility of government, have always sat uneasily alongside forms of more direct popular self-expression such as referenda. But what, one might ask, could possibly be more democratic than asking the people to express its democratic will directly on a given issue by means of a referendum? How can one deny the democratic legitimacy of the will of the people, directly expressed through a single-issue vote (and thereby dispensing with those grubby little parliamentarians and their fiddling of their expenses)?

The answer lies, obviously enough, in the potential that referenda offer governments, press barons, well-funded interest lobbies, nationalist tub-thumpers and other powerful, unscrupulous groups for manipulating the outcome of the vote. As any number of historical examples shows, the phrasing of the question, the timing of the ballot and all the other conditions determining the vote allow for a very considerable degree of inappropriate influence to be brought to bear on a single-issue plebiscite. The recent referendum on the alternative vote system in this country, where emotive and personalised arguments were allowed to obscure the real issues, demonstrated this with depressing clarity.

The fate of the short-lived proposal (October/November 2011) for a referendum in Greece on the bailout offered to that country by the Eurozone states provided an object lesson in the undemocratic potential of referenda, unless employed in a manner properly defined by a democratic constitution. Greece had not had a referendum for 37 years, and then only in the wholly exceptional circumstances of the country’s return to democracy after the collapse of the military regime of the ‘Greek colonels’ in 1974; the people were called on to vote on the future of the Greek monarchy, which had been badly tainted by its association with the colonels, and decided to abolish it.

This was the kind of constitutional issue suitable for a referendum; it had precedents, notably in the Italian referendum of 1946 that resulted in the end of that country’s monarchy, fatally identified with Mussolini’s Fascist dictatorship. The referendum on the EU bailout, by contrast, was a piece of transparent political sleight-of-hand, conjured up out of nowhere by the then prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou, as a desperate measure to shore up his party’s legitimacy, and dumped unceremoniously as soon as it became unviable. That cannot be done with parliamentary elections, especially under a system of fixed electoral terms. Parliamentary elections, involving a variety of parties and politicians, a system of constituencies and a large number of political issues, are very much more difficult to manipulate and are in the longer term a far more reliable reflection of the democratic process.

The first political leader in modern times to rely on referenda was Emperor Napoleon III, whose French Second Empire (1852-70), in effect a form of plebiscitary dictatorship, was ‘constitutionally’ founded on referenda. Having been elected president of the Second Republic in 1848, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte carried out a coup d’état in December 1851 and seized dictatorial powers. He then had the coup approved by the French people in a referendum, in which his regime cynically exploited the nationalist-militarist aura surrounding the Bonaparte name. In December 1852, a second referendum was engineered to approve the abolition of the Second Republic and its replacement by the Second Empire, with Bonaparte ruling as Emperor Napoleon III. This exercise in political manipulation by means of referenda enabled Napoleon to strip the elected parliament of the Second Republic of its power and establish his own brand of authoritarian rule.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) distinguished between three types of political leadership, each requiring its own legitimisation. Traditional forms of leadership like monarchies were legitimated by principles such as feudal concepts of heredity, while modern Western states were legitimated by the rule of law and by rational systems of administration and government (among which one may here include elective democracy). The third type was the rule of the charismatic leader, which scholars like Ian Kershaw have applied to the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. It is easy enough to see in Napoleon III an early prototype of the charismatic leader/dictator, since he had neither traditional nor democratic legitimacy; his legitimacy, such as it was, was provided by referenda, backed by coercion and manipulation, and underpinned by the skilfully propagated mystique of the Bonapartist myth.

It is no accident that both Hitler and Mussolini, Napoleon III’s successors in this respect, employed referenda to legitimate their policies. In Italy, the one-party state was institutionalised by the electoral law of 1928 and parliamentary elections abolished; instead, the Grand Council of Fascism, now the supreme constitutional authority, selected a single list of candidates that was approved by plebiscite. Mussolini’s example was followed by such unsavoury dictatorships as the regime of the Greek colonels, whose leader, Colonel George Papadopoulos, used a referendum in 1973 to legitimate his abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a presidential republic under which wide-ranging powers were vested in the president (himself); and the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, employed the National Plebiscite of 1980 to give his bloodstained rule a fig-leaf of popular legitimacy.

Hitler held four plebiscites, all cynically manipulated to legitimate his regime and its policies. The second and most constitutionally significant of these took place following the death of President Hindenburg in August 1934. Hitler immediately promulgated a law whereby the office of president was combined with that of chancellor (an office he had assumed in January 1933) and the presidential powers transferred to ‘the Führer and Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler’. The plebiscite of 19 August 1934 duly approved Hitler’s assumption of absolute power, thus enabling him to claim that he ruled as dictator by the direct will of the people – the key feature of referenda. In stage-managed demonstrations of national enthusiasm, the Nazis also secured the ratification by plebiscite of Hitler’s decision to withdraw from the League of Nations (1933), to send German military forces to occupy the Rhineland (1936), and to annex Austria to the Reich (1938).

But perhaps the most telling examples of the use of referenda to undermine a democratic state occurred in Germany before 1933, as part of the campaign by political extremists of both right and left to destroy the parliamentary democracy of the Weimar Republic, in power since Germany’s defeat in the First World War. In 1926, the cynical agitation that accompanied the Communists’ attempt to launch a referendum on the emotive issue of the expropriation of the former ruling houses in the various German states (the Fürstenenteignung) had shown the potential that such votes held for destabilising the still fragile German democracy.

That weakening of republican democracy and its replacement by the Nazi regime was materially assisted by the referendum demanded in 1929 by the anti-republican right on the Young Plan, the successor to the Dawes Plan of 1924 that had regulated Germany’s reparations payments to the Allied Powers. Both helped to integrate Germany into the wider economy of the Western world. But it was that process of the peaceful integration of Germany into the post-1918 framework of Europe that the German right so bitterly opposed. For it meant accepting the reality of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, imposed by the victorious Allies on defeated Germany in 1919, and the resulting strategy, pursued especially by Germany’s outstanding Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann, of ameliorating the Versailles conditions by a gradual process of renegotiation that aimed at defending German interests within the overall framework of friendly relations with other Western European states.

The leader of the German Nationalists (DNVP), Alfred Hugenberg, set up a committee to promote a plebiscite against the Young Plan, and invited Hitler to join it. The alliance with the conservative DNVP and the Stahlhelm, the war veterans’ organisation, was a boon to the then electorally insignificant Nazi Party, legitimating Hitler’s rabble-rousing tactics and giving free rein to just the kind of extreme nationalistic demagoguery that would turn voters towards his party. The Hugenberg committee’s ‘Liberty Law’ (‘Freiheitsgesetz’) assailed the Young Plan in the wildest terms as it rested, they claimed, on the betrayal of Germany to foreign interests; they even demanded that German ministers who signed such treaties with foreign powers should be committed to prison as traitors. Though the referendum failed, the frenzy of nationalism it helped to unleash bore fruit in 1933, when Hitler comprehensively outmanoeuvred Hugenberg and the DNVP and assumed total power.

Anthony Grenville

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