Direct democracy returns to Greece
It appears that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has decided to call a referendum on the European debt plan as opposed to working a solution through parliament. The politics of referendums aren’t discussed enough in my opinion but luckily, political science can help us predict voting behavior in direct democracy.
Vote choice in referendums is unique in advanced democracies because it allows voters to weigh an issue directly, sometimes without concern for party loyalties. The model of political parties described by Bawn et al. shows that voters primarily take cues on most issues from elite signalling within political parties. So should this method of issue support carry over into plebiscites? In Referendums on European Integration, Simon Hug and Pascal Sciarini, discuss how different variables about a referendum affect vote choice. Examining data from fourteen European integration referendums, the authors claim that issue saliency determines voting behavior. In important “first-tier” elections, voters make a decision by weighing the actual issue. On less important “second-tier” elections, voters may base their decision on their assessment of the ruling party. This comes in the form of voting against the wishes of the government if one is dissatisfied, and voting in favor if one is supportive. I think Hug and Sciarini would agree the Greek vote represents a “first-tier issue.” We should expect then, that confidence in the government should have minimal impact on voter preference.
Hug and Sciarini’s model has been tested recently, when Iceland faced a somewhat similar situation, twice in the past two years. You can read the details here, but the basic story is that twice the Icelandic government attempted to push a loan repayment deal through plebiscite, and twice voters rejected the deal, known as the “Icesave Bill.” In that situation, the ruling coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the Left-Green Movement came to power after Iceland’s financial collapse that triggered the need for the referendum. While most voters approved of the new government, the public push by the SDA was not enough to convince voters to cast “yes” ballots.