Although they offer voters a simple binary choice, referendums imply substantially different decisions. On the one hand, voters can choose a “Yes” for a change, such as the introduction a new policy or a constitutional change. On the other, they can say “No” to such proposals and vote to maintain the status quo. Although maintaining the status quo is not necessarily the best solution, it generally represents the safest choice compared to the risks related to a change. The current uncertainties related to the UK’s future relationship with the EU clearly show that “Brexit is riskier than Bremain”, as Timothy Garton Ash put it.
This imbalance in terms of risks and uncertainties means the status quo option has an intrinsic advantage. A recent analysis of 268 referendums from democratic countries since 1990 (excluding Switzerland) shows that the change option won only in 40% of the cases, after accounting for the presence of turnout thresholds in some countries. The fundamental imbalance in direct democracy means that information is crucial when voters are making up their minds. In referendum campaigns, the arguments from both sides play a crucial role – not only because political parties play a weaker role than they do in general elections, but also because of the uncertainties related to referendum proposals.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo today, in recognition of his four-year effort to guide peace negotiations with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC.
The October announcement about the prize came just days after Colombians rejected a referendum on the historic peace agreement to end the armed conflict that has plagued the country for half a century. In late November, the two sides pushed through a revised peace deal addressing some of the concerns of those who voted against the referendum. Santos avoided another referendum by getting the senate and the lower house to approve the new pact.
Referendums are tough to push through
The outcomes of referendums — whether in Colombia, or the June Brexit vote or December’s Italian referendum — make it clear that getting people to vote for government initiatives is harder than one would expect.
Mr Renzi’s speech on the night of the referendum clearly summarised how he approached the referendum campaign. In the entire speech, he never mentioned his own party, the Democratic Party (PD), while he focused entirely on his own responsibilities. Referring to those who campaigned for a Yes vote, he commented that “you campaigners have not lost, but I have lost”.
The personalisation of the vote has been the distinctive feature of the campaign for Italy’s constitutional reform. From the very beginning, Mr Renzi has linked the fate of his government to the approval of the reform, promising to resign should the proposal be rejected. A promise that he promptly fulfilled, after almost 60% of Italians voted against the reform.
Italian voters seemed to have followed Renzi’s personalisation strategy. Instead of a referendum on the Constitution, the consultation became a clear consultation on the Government, and especially on the Prime Minister. Data in Figure 1 confirm that Yes votes in the referendum are clearly correlated with support for the Democratic Party in the 2014 European election – the only nation-wide election in which Renzi was Prime Minister. The correlation is neat: the higher the support for the Democratic Party, the higher the support for the reform.
Il referendum costituzionale italiano si è concluso con la vittoria del No con quasi il 60% dei voti. Fin dall’inizio della campagna referendaria, il primo ministro Matteo Renzi ha legato strettamente l’esito del voto a quello del Governo, spostando di fatto il significato del referendum da un voto sulla Costituzione a un voto sulla sua persona.
Se mettiamo in relazione i voti per il Sì con i voti per il Partito Democratico alle elezioni europee del 2014 emerge chiaramente come il voto per il referendum sia stato un voto “politico”, anziché un voto nel merito della riforma. Come mostra la Figura 1, le percentuali più alte per il Sì alla riforma si sono registrate nelle regioni dove il PD ha ottenuto più voti nel 2014.
On 4 December, Italians will vote in a referendum on the most far-reaching constitutional reform since the birth of the Italian Republic. From the very beginning, the country’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has linked the fate of his government to approval of the reform, promising to resign should the proposal be rejected. In doing so, he has shifted the meaning of the referendum away from simply constitutional reform, and toward a verdict on his personality instead.
Although this ‘personalisation’ strategy seemed effective when Renzi’s approval rate was high, now that voters’ support for the government is declining, this strategy may ultimately backfire. We have carried out new survey research which adds evidence to this perspective. The key finding from our research is striking: that merely mentioning the constitutional reform has been proposed by the government reduces its support among Italian voters.
Roma – Di fronte al referendum costituzionale del prossimo 4 dicembre, il governo si trova davanti a un paradosso: non può non sostenere la riforma fortemente voluta dal presidente del Consiglio, Matteo Renzi, ma allo stesso tempo questo sostegno indebolisce il consenso al fronte del Sì. È la situazione che emerge da uno studio realizzato dall’Istituto universitario europeo insieme con l’Università di Zurigo e l’istituto di ricerca Swg, su un campione rappresentativo di elettori italiani con accesso a internet e che si è svolto tra il 5 ottobre e il 3 novembre scorsi.
The next week I’ll be at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf where I’ll be teaching a block seminar on Political Psychology. The seminar covers numerous topics that are often addressed by political psychology, ranging from decision making to the role of the elites and political parties. I personally designed the syllabus myself, and I really look forward to teaching such a fascinating discipline to bachelor and master’s students at HHU.
Tomorrow I’ll be presenting one of my recent studies on the UK’s EU referendum at University of Warwick. The presentation is part of the interdisciplinary workshop “Media and new technologies in the Brexit referendum“, organised by the Department of Economics and Warwick Policy Lab (WPL).
The workshop will be followed by a roundtable where I have also been invited to talk. The roundatble will bring together scholars and professionals from various backgrounds to analyse the 99 days of Theresa May’s government and the challenges to UK-EU relations brought about by Brexit.
Last weekend I went to Canterbury to attend the 2016 EPOP Conference. The programme gathered several interesting presentations, including a whole set of studies on Britain’s EU Referendum. The conference has been an extremely stimulating venue in which I received useful feedback and comments on my paper on risk propensity and vote in referendum campaigns.