Referendums in Ukraine


Peter Emerson – TRANSCEND Media Service

Democratic rights: the right of self-determination and the right of majority rule. Crimea, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Odessa…

Can anyone, or any politician, just draw a border, hold a referendum, and declare independence? But “why should I be a minority in your state, when you could be a minority in mine?” The question was asked in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s by one Vladimir Gligorov.

1        Introduction

Some rights are wrong. The divine right of kings was wrong. The right of a majority to rule, as currently practiced, is not all right. And the right of self-determination, allowing as it does a people to be ‘determined’ by only a majority of that people, is a formula for mayhem!

Crimea is only the latest example of a region taking a majority vote referendum. Twenty years ago, there was a spate of such plebiscites – and wars! – in both the Balkans and the Caucasus. The genocide in Rwanda was also prompted by a (mistaken interpretation) of majority rule; the slogan with which the Interahamwe launched their genocide was “Rubanda nyamwinshi”, ‘we are the majority’.

Democracy, however, is for everybody, not just a majority, not just 50% and a bit. There must be a better way of resolving disputes, and indeed there is.

This article looks at the origins of these two rights; it considers their recent histories; it advocates a more democratic form of decision-making; and finally, it makes a plea for more inclusive norms of democratic decision-making.

2a     The right of self-determination

When President Woodrow Wilson first proposed this right, he provided a principle by which colonies solve the external problem of the foreign imperialist. It was never meant for resolving internal questions of secessionism and/or irredentism.

The right has often been enshrined. In 1996, for example, the un declared that, “All peoples have the right of self-determination… [to] freely determine their political status.” In practice, the “people” are those who, regardless of what their (often bloody) history has bequeathed, happen today to live there… but where is ‘there’? For those not on small islands, history and geography are replete with borders. Secondly, the phrase “freely determine” does not cater for minorities. At the moment, as in Crimea, the political leader of the day chooses the question and then asks, ‘yes-or-no?’ In which case, those who might otherwise want to vote for compromise for example are, in effect, disenfranchised, let alone partners in a mixed marriage, other minorities, etc.. A better principle is required.

2b      The right of a majority to rule

Minority rule was not good. To argue for its opposite, majority rule, was an obvious improvement. With phrases such as the greater good of the greater number, the divine right of kings was rendered obsolete, and the right of majority rule was born. But one question then followed: if and when a controversy arises, how can a majority opinion be identified?

Paradoxical though it may sound, one cannot identify a majority opinion by a majority vote, not least because that opinion has to be identified earlier if it is to be already on the ballot paper. A majority opinion can be ratified, perhaps, if the author(s) of the question first engaged in a comprehensive consultation process, (that or made a good guess). Such deliberations might be possible in a small meeting. In a parliament of hundreds, however, or in a society of millions, such is all but impossible.

What often happens, then, in the name of democracy, is that some autocrat in, say, Crimea, Croatia, Abhazia or wherever, draws up his own question(s), and then holds the said ballot. In countless cases, the question is the answer.

3        The story so far

When a country gains its independence – Kenya, Bosnia, Ukraine – the West normally recommends a western democratic structure, that which is called majoritarianism. This involves an election under one of many systems; and a form of decision-making, which, in contrast, varies not at all: if there is no verbal consensus, decisions are to be taken by a (simple or weighted) majority vote. Hence the word ‘majoritarianism’.

Kenya                  Initially, Kenya’s democratic structure involved first-past-the-post elections – the British system – and majority votes in parliament. In 2008, it all went horribly wrong. The elections were contested, and violence erupted. The West, having first advised majority rule, then advocated the very opposite: all-party power-sharing.

Bosnia                  With the collapse of Soviet communism, the call for elections swept into the Balkans. In 1990, nearly every republic used a two-round system, which – just like the British system – meant the voter could only express a single preference; in Bosnia, therefore, the ballot was little more than a sectarian headcount. Yugoslavia was falling apart. The eu’s Badinter Commission, five constitutional lawyers, suggested referendums. Slovenia and Croatia had already had theirs, and more now followed: some, as in Bosnia, were recognised; others, as in Kosovo in 1991, were not. The result, as Sarajevo’s legendary newspaper, Oslobodjenje, later observed, was horrific: “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum,” (op. cit., 7.2.1999). After the Bosnian war, the West suggested power-sharing.

Ukraine      As in Moscow, so too in Kiev, the first post-communist democratic structure was majoritarian. The Ukraine was not split into two; the political structure, however, was divisive. Presidential elections were under a winner-takes-all-loser-gets-nothing system, and parliament’s decisions were again subject to majority votes; in a word, majority rule. In 2014, when it too went horribly wrong, the eu rushed over to Kiev to suggest a form of power-sharing; yet another complete change of mind. Too late. Yanukovich had fled.

Would it not be better, as in South Africa, to start with power-sharing? Or even, as in Switzerland, to have a permanent all-party structure?

4        A more inclusive policy

As noted above, democracy is for everybody, not just a majority. So no one has the right to dominate, and no one the right to veto; rather, everyone has the responsibility to come to an accommodation.

Decisions need not be based on a majority vote. Other decision-making methodologies are more suited to modern plural societies: they involve a choice of more than two options, and one voting procedure, the Modified Borda Count, mbc, is non-majoritarian. It works like this.

Consider a parliament and a controversy. The speaker allows all parties to submit a suggestion, but every such proposal must be a complete package for the given topic. A team of impartial ‘consensors’ produce and maintain a list of all these options on a computer screen and, if need be, a dedicated web-site. Participants may ask questions, seek clarifications, suggest changes, propose composites or even have a new idea. So, as the debate proceeds, the number of options ‘on the table’ may vary.

If at the end, there is but one option left, this may be termed the verbal consensus. If, as may be more likely, a number of options remain, then all concerned may vote, i.e., cast their preferences on the consensors’ (short) list of options – normally no more than six.

If a voter casts only one preference, his favourite gets 1 point.

If another casts two preferences, her favourite gets 2 points (and her 2nd pref. gets 1).

And so on.

So those who cast a full ballot give their favourite 6 points (their 2nd pref. 5 points, their 3rd 4, etc.).

In effect, no-one votes against any body or any thing. Instead, each vote only for the various options, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm; in so doing, each voter recognises the valid aspiration of his/her fellow democrats.

The outcome is the option with the most points. So, to win, the protagonist needs lots of high preferences, a few middle ones perhaps, but very few low ones; it is therefore worth her while to talk with any erstwhile (majoritarian) opponents, so to persuade them to give her option a higher preference. The mbc is thus inclusive. It is not win-or-lose, like a binary vote; it is win-win. Furthermore, not least because it takes all preferences cast by all into account, it is also very accurate.

5        Conclusion

If decisions were not to be taken by majority vote; if instead a non-majoritarian mbc were to be used, there would no longer be any justification for majority rule. Instead, the democratic norm would be for all-party power-sharing and preference voting, both in parliament and in referendums. Such, it is argued, should become the norm.

But it should do so quickly, before Donetsk tries to start that which the Russians call ‘matryoshka nationalism’ – like their famous dolls, every majority contains its minority. Self-determination by majority vote is a recipe to prompt every society to descend into mayhem, as it did in Chechnya, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and now too South Sudan.

Democracy must be re-defined. Decisions should be based either on a verbal consensus, or on a similar accommodation achieved through a ballot: i.e., that option which enjoys the highest level of overall support. Furthermore, the right of self-determination should be subject to just such a broad-based consensus, not just those within the new borders, but also of those compatriots who may now become the new neighbours.


Having served for nine years in submarines, and having seen some of the poverty which (still) haunts this world, Peter Emerson resigned his commission to teach maths and physics in a school for the poor in Nairobi. Four years later, he cycled across Africa, visited India to work in Mother Teresa’s hospital in Calcutta, and then moved to Belfast. He is the child of a mixed marriage: his father was Irish but Protestant, his mum English but Catholic. Politically speaking, therefore, he is illegitimate. He now runs the de Borda Institute ( and he often works as an observer for the osce or eu. He speaks Russian, some Swahili and Serbo-Croat, and is now learning Chinese. His latest book is Defining Democracy, (Springer, 2012).

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 May 2014.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Referendums in Ukraine, is included. Thank you.

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