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ON REFERENDUMS:

A CONVERSATION WITH PROF. MATT QVORTRUP

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By David Levy

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The Montréal Review, March 2014

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"Referendums and Ethnic Conflict" by Matt Qvortrup (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014)  

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"A most impressive and crucially important contribution to the comparative and historical study of nationalism and democracy."

—Arend Lijphart, former President of the American Political Science Association

"A valuable and comprehensive study of a much-too-neglected subject, both for democratic theory and for conflict management."

—Donald L. Horowitz, Duke University

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David Levy: The cover of your book features an image of the shadow of an assault rifle bullet falling on a referendum ballot…

Matt Qvortrup: Originally the book title was supposed to be A Balloting to Stop Bullets. The publisher thought it was a bit too populist. I talked to an artist friend who went to great lengths to get the bullet from a soldier. Probably the sort of round that was used in Bosnia.

DL:  It is, as you know, a 7.62x39mm round, ammo for an AK-47.

MQ: Yes, the Serbs - being friends of the Russians - substituted AK-47 bullets for ballots when they lost the referendum. In short, without negotiations referendums are likely to result in Kalashnikov rather than Consensus. 

DL: Seems the idea for the book began on the back of an envelope on a UN chartered flight from Juba, which became the capital of South Sudan to Khartoum, Sudan…

MQ: In 2009, I received a phone call when I was in Jamaica from a UN department involved in mediating between South Sudan and Khartoum to organize the referendum there. I went over there and became the referendum man. 

 DL: Since the late 18th century when the notion of rule by consent displaced the concept of rule by divine right there have apparently been more than 200 referendums from Micronesia to Mongolia from Montenegro to Montreal… Is that number, do you imagine, likely to grow, given that direct democracy is a happy alternative to war?

MQ: President Putin was kind enough to organize that referendum in the Crimea the day my book came out. The referendum has become the gold standard of public legitimacy. Whether you are a dictator or not a dictator even in the most cruel dictatorships, with the possible exception of North Korea, it near always is a likely way to win over people. It has been said that people can now choose their rulers, which is plainly absurd. But nowadays, even if you are Pinochet or whoever you are, you can say I’m just asking the people… So, I think, yes we are more likely to see more of them. Apparently these referendums or plebiscites are generally strategically rather than idealistically determined, key factor being the factor of timing – i.e.  the when. They are likely to occur when two conditions are met 1) the initiator is under pressure (facing competition) and 2) has a popular course (the distance between the initiator and the voter is small). In places with strong nationalist parties. In other words only when the powers that be believe the numbers are favourable.

"It has been said that people can now choose their rulers, which is plainly absurd. But nowadays, even if you are Pinochet or whoever you are, you can say, "I’m just asking the people"… So, I think, yes, we are more likely to see more of them. Apparently these referendums or plebiscites are generally strategically rather than idealistically determined, key factor being the factor of timing – i.e.  the when."

DL: There have been near four dozen secession votes in virtually every corner of the globe between 1905 and 2011, the breaks usually permanent. A referendum may or may not resolve a conflict peacefully. As you say, referendums held without much prior negotiations between the parties on the ground rules and related practical issues may exacerbate conflicts and drive the losers to turn to violence. You point out that referendums on ethnic issues are potentially dangerous, because they can result in a “tyranny of the majority” a first past the post winner take all outcome.

MQ:  Well, in 1992 Bosnians voted for secession from Yugoslavia, a 64% turnout, 92% saying yes to independence. The Serbs responded by organizing a poll of their own in a Bosnian enclave with a Serb majority. Same number, 92%, voted to remain in Yugoslavia. The struggle soon proceeded in Clausewitz-like fashion. Outcomes are more likely to be peaceful when the parties agree on the legitimacy of the referendum as was the case in Northern Ireland in 1998. Only Turkey recognized the nation of Northern Cyprus following the 1975 vote, which led to further tensions between Greeks and Turks. There was the tension in Northern Ireland in 1973. The Prime Minister at the time Edward Heath said: ”We’ll just let the people decide.” He knew that 55% of them wanted to stay with Britain and 45% wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. The vote was boycotted by the Republican Irish who felt they had no other choice but to fight. What followed  between 1973 and 1985 was in effect a civil war. There were 3,000 deaths. If you want the people to decide you need to make sure there is a level playing field.

DL: Have there been any instances of dual or multi-nation referendums? Is there some way to resolve, say, the Kurdistan issue – involving Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq – by a referendum?

MQ: I think it is possible. Some of the referendums in Russia were a little bit like that. After the Soviet Union broke up there was an anarchy of referendums. Tartarstan, no longer a geographical area, voted to leave Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh is another example. Anything is possible whenever you have a group that is relatively united. These votes are almost symbolic celebrations of We are different!

"Anything is possible whenever you have a group that is relatively united. These votes are almost symbolic celebrations of We are different!"

DL: Apparently secession referendums are held in times of international shake-up. Is this such a time? Nations are, after all collages, artificial constructions that may in certain circumstances be subject to fracture like a marriage. Voting has begun in Venice and the surrounding region on whether to break away from Italy. The poll was organized by local activists who want a future state called the Republic of Veneto. Recent opinion polls suggest that two-thirds of the four million electorate favour splitting from Rome, but the vote will not be legally binding. This sort of thing, in other words, is not just something that is happening here in Canada but perhaps the manifestation of a general pressure on the centre from the margins.

MQ: It isn’t just a Western thing. There were referendums in Iran, in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had a referendum, there was a referendum in Morocco… Governments increasingly feel they need that stamp of approval whether democratic or dictatorship. Putin understood that he couldn’t just roll his tanks into Crimea because that would be seen as aggressive.

DL:  How was Putin able to organize that massive referendum while Crimea was part of Ukraine?

MQ: The thing about Crimea is that they had a lot of autonomy.

DL: But he had to send in his people with ballot boxes and ballots…really quite an operation...

MQ: The government of Crimea had for a long time wanted to join the Russian Motherland. Crimea was effectively like Québec. Imagine that 80% of them spoke French and were separatists. They had a national assembly and in that national assembly there was an overwhelming majority of Russian patriots and they of course happily played ball and said okay good we’ll organize it now. Initially it was going to be a referendum on 25 May. They moved it back to 30 March and then to 16 March when Putin realized he could do it more quickly, count on the element of surprise. The opportunity was there. It was unconstitutional, and it was done too quickly. There were all manner of things wrong with the vote but the result was probably a relatively fair reflection of what people felt.

DL: The referendum in Crimea posed two choices, neither of them a “No”: 1) “Are you in favour of the reunification of Crimea with Russia as a part of the Russian Federation?” 2) “Are you in favour of restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine?” Did the wording offer an advantage to the Russian side or was the result totally predictable no matter the wording?

MQ: Option 2 amounted to a No.

DL:  As you explain, basic referendum considerations are: (i) Eligibility - who should be allowed to vote? (ii) Who organizes the vote? (iii) Who selects the question? (iv) Who counts the ballots? How should a referendum result be determined? 50% + 1 or some sort of quorum, i.e. a minimum number of participants and a minimum number of votes required to win, say 60%?

 MQ: I think it should be 50% + 1 otherwise you create an issue about what constitutes a majority. If you were to make that stipulation you would need also to stipulate that the turnout be sufficiently high. You may want to insist on a minimum turnout of say 50%. They have that in Italy. In Québec, it has been extremely high in the past, 90% or so. That gives the vote that extra bit of legitimacy. It’s also important that you have some negotiation first, to agree on the ground rules.

DL: Is it possible that there is more national uncertainty in Canada than we think there is?  One hears, say, occasional muttering about a separate Alberta. The country does seem an archipelago of separatenesses… I refer in part to the hyphenated: Polish–Canadians, St. Patrick’s day Irish-Canadians, Pakistani-Canadians, and of course French-Canadians.  Does this local aspiration to statehood represent some sort of revolt of the hyphenated?  Past referendum results in Québec are unclear on this point:  in 1980:  No 60%, Yes 40%; in 1995  No 50.58 %, Yes 49.42%,  i.e. a margin of less than 1%.

MQ: The Québec referendums of 1980 and 1995, conducted by René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau, were essentially a response to pressures from within the Parti Québécois, from party stalwarts not the electorate, which by tradition is the general motivation for conducting a referendum. Lévesque and Parizeau never thought they could win. The referendums were conceived as a lynchpin for holding the party together in its quest for political power. The same circumstance seems to be in play in Scotland. My overall thesis is that if as a political leader you feel under pressure and you feel you have a good cause then you go to the people and you say I’m with you and that would relieve the pressure. There is a slightly different logic in Québec and in Scotland. I talked to the first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, and I told him all the indicators suggested that he was unlikely to win the September referendum. I am, he said, the leader of a national party. The guys on the ground want a referendum, they want independence. I cannot not have a referendum even if I know it’s not going to give them what they want. 

"The Québec referendums of 1980 and 1995, conducted by René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau, were essentially a response to pressures from within the Parti Québécois, from party stalwarts not the electorate, which by tradition is the general motivation for conducting a referendum. Lévesque and Parizeau never thought they could win. The referendums were conceived as a lynchpin for holding the party together in its quest for political power."

DL: Was that, do you suppose, the thinking of René Lévesque?

MQ: Back in the day he must have known in 1980 that he wasn’t going to win… It was slightly different with Parizeau and Bouchard. But Parizeau probably didn’t think he was going to win either in 1995.

DL: He did come very, very close. How does our situation compare to the one in Great Britain?

MQ: Scotland has about forty members of the House of Commons. Of those five are members of the Scottish National Party (SNP), corresponding to the Bloc, though much smaller in relative numbers. Thirty-five percent of those who vote SNP do not want an independent Scotland. The party runs a good show, they’re very efficient, very effective… They’re quite close to the Parti Québécois. They are a social democratic national party. Used to be centre right. What they are campaigning on in Scotland is do you want to be a small social democratic country? Do you want to be Norway? The vote will happen on 18 September. The No side, which is called Better Together, has been saying, well you’re not going to be able to share the pound... A bit like could an independent Québec have the dollar. Talk of some sort ofn"sovereignty-association" exactly like Canada in 1980.

DL: Have the Scots studied the Québec referendum campaigns?

MQ: In almost absurd detail. In Scotland everybody talks about Québec.  Not Montenegro where there was a referendum, because Québec is part of the Commonwealth.  People in Scotland are now busy reading up on Canadian history…. 

DL: The Scottish referendum question is quite direct:  “Should Scotland be an independent country?”  Here in Quebec we tend to the soft question. The soft question, it seems to me, enables the independentists to pursue popular support in stages. Moreover, the soft question reduces the meaning of both defeat and victory, i.e. simply step one in a process to be conducted in phases over time, setting in motion a neverendum based on the notion that if one keeps playing double or nothing one will sooner or later  win… and for the time being keeps party stalwarts engaged on behalf of the party’s immediate political ambitions.

MQ:  I suppose one goes for as much autonomy as one can get without seeking it officially. That’s probably what they are after. If you are Parti Québécois or the Scottish National Party you have grassroots people who come hell or high water want to leave tomorrow rather than today, for whom it’s sort of a badge of honour, whereas the party leadership seems less thus inclined. 

DL: As for the referendum soon to take place in Scotland it has been proposed that all the citizens of Great Britain vote since the result will effect everyone not just the Scots. What if it were decided that the entire country should vote in the next Québec referendum, and in a country–wide vote the country voted to expel Québec and Québec voted to remain in confederation? What then?

MQ:  It’s a problem we’ve had in Great Britain as well. There was an opinion poll that suggested that most people wanted Scotland to go. The referendum in Scotland is unlikely to resolve the matter once and for all. But if supporters of independence win 40% or more of the vote the place might  be in for a neverendum?

DL: Pauline Marois didn’t get a very warm reception in Scotland when she visited last year. Apparently, as matters now stand, 60% of Québécois oppose sovereignty. In response to the question: Would Quebec separate from Canada with Pierre Karl Péladeau at the helm of the PQ?  No 72%, Yes 27 %. The concept really doesn’t appear to have all that much popular support.

"If a nationalist party wins a majority they have no choice but to call a referendum, even if they know they are going to lose."

MQ: Having lived outside Canada for the better part of my adult life, and having written several books about referendums, I find the renewed debate about Québec independence and a third referendum puzzling. All referendums on independence seem to be fought within a cocoon; as if the outside world does not exist. People tell me that Québec is unique. But they tell me the same thing in Scotland, and in Catalonia. My sense - having studied several hundred referendums - is that independence referendums always follow a special logic. If a nationalist party wins a majority they have no choice but to call a referendum, even if they know they are going to lose. In normal cases a referendum on independence is held if the party in power is under pressure and if they have a popular cause. This, for example, explains the referendum in Crimea. But when we are dealing with nationalist parties - parties whose raison d'etre is independence - then referendums become a kind of totemic proof to the core supporters that the nationalist party (be it PQ, SNP in Scotland or the Convergència in Catalonia) that the party leadership is serious.

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Called "a world authority on referendums" by the Financial Times, Matt Qvortrup is Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at the Center for International Security and Resilience at Cranfield University and Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History at King's College London.

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