Despite its apparent incongruence with representative democracy, direct democracy remains a salient feature of many representative democracies worldwide. The menu of referenda, plebiscites, town meetings, recall elections, and initiatives that make up direct democratic rule has an accompanying list of virtues and vices. Some of the virtues of direct democracy are its powerful reinforcement of the concept of “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and its ability to check representatives who are not responsive to the preferences of their constituencies. Some of its vices include its promotion of majoritarian rule over pluralistic rule, sometimes severely disadvantaging minority groups; its capacity to be easily manipulated by complex drafting of propositions, uneven media coverage, or timing of the vote; and its method of bypassing other key democratic institutions, such as the legislature. For these reasons, the use of direct democracy should be limited to approving post-transition constitutions via referendum or passing initiatives at the local or regional level, and not approving sweeping national constitutional amendments.
Following Burundi’s bloody civil war (October 1993 – August 2005) and Rwanda’s genocide (April 1994 – July 1994), both Central African countries required new constitutions. On February 28, 2005 a national referendum was held in Burundi that would result in the adoption of a power-sharing constitution. This constitution mandated directly elected presidents with a maximum term of office; representation quotas for ethnic groups and women in the Chamber of Representatives; and a 2/3 majority for any law to be passed. Similarly, a May 2003 referendum held in Rwanda approved a new constitution that established an independent justice system, prohibited the formation of ethnic or religious parties, and limited presidents to two seven-year terms. Both constitutions included clauses intended to safeguard democratic governance, and both constitutional referendums marked an important step toward the consolidation of democracy.
Unfortunately, the democratically patterned constitutions of Rwanda and Burundi have not proven to be entirely resilient. Within the past four years, both countries have voted to extend presidential term limits in nation-wide constitutional referendums. The results allow current presidents to stay in power until 2034, exhibiting a clear shift toward authoritarianism in the region. Because the systematic elimination of checks on executive power was accomplished legally, through constitutional referendum, it is extremely difficult to counteract.
Paul Kagame has served as the President of Rwanda since 2000. The country has not seen a peaceful transition of power since the conclusion of the 1990s civil war. Although the Kagame government has been praised for improving the economic and social conditions of its people, it has also curtailed civil liberties. According to Freedom House, opponents of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the President’s party) have been routinely subjected to “intimidation, …arbitrary arrests, beatings, politicized prosecutions, enforced disappearances… and suspected assassinations” throughout Kagame’s tenure. Under these circumstances, the regime held a referendum in 2015 to alter the constitution in order to allow President Kagame to serve three additional terms in office after the two already permitted under the constitution. The electoral commission reported that 98.3 percent of voters, or 6.16 million Rwandans, voted in favor of this change. However, the referendum was tainted by political intimidation, and the only significant opposition party, the Democratic Green Party, was not permitted to campaign against the constitutional changes in advance of the vote.
President Pierre Nkurunzizi of Burundi has been in office since 2005. Like Rwanda, Burundi’s constitution allowed a two-term presidential limit. In 2015, Nkurunzizi side-stepped this rule and sought a third term, reasoning that he was elected for his first term by parliament, and not through a general election. In response to this decision, the country erupted in mass protests and violence, resulting in 1,200 deaths and 400,000 displacements. Violence continued to escalate ahead of a 2018 referendum that introduced a constitutional amendment intended to further extend Nkurunzizi’s presidency through two more seven-year terms. Following the announcement of the referendum, Human Rights Watch reported increased “repression and human rights violations” in the form of “killings, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detention, threats, and harassment” of the opposition. Hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees fled the country. Yet on the day of the election, results indicated that around 80 percent of Burundi citizens approved the constitutional change. Despite efforts by the opposition to invalidate the referendum results by petitioning Burundi’s constitutional court and the US State Department’s condemnation of the referendum process, the constitutional changes took effect.
Both Kagame and Nkurunzizi claim to be legitimate democratic leaders, because their power was originally obtained via free and fair elections. In both cases, referendum results indicate that an overwhelming majority of the population was in favor of altering term limits, and there is nothing inherently undemocratic about updating constitutional law. Nevertheless, it is these leaders’ willingness to manipulate the electoral process and stifle opposition voices that outs them as burgeoning dictators. By obscuring their authoritarian constitution making in the guise of direct democracy, Kagame and Nkurunzizi quickly and successfully dismantled term limits, following in the footsteps of Hugo Chávez and Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lead their countries down the path of authoritarianism.
All democratic societies should be aware of how principles of direct democracy can be used and abused in ways that threaten the future of democracy. Because referendum results can be easily manipulated by rising autocrats to legalize authoritarian rule, countries would be wise to include in their institutional design safeguards against the abuse of direct democracy and limits to the use of direct democracy. For example, several major established democracies (such as Germany, the United States, and India) now limit popular votes on substantive issues to just the local and regional levels. In Colombia, any referendum is subject to approval by the constitutional court and a qualified majority in congress before it can be put up for a vote. By preventing constitutional amendments from being instantly passed through national referendum, these countries protect their constitutionally established democratic institutions from being too easily unraveled.
Photo from the Kremlin, Moscow, “Meeting with President of Rwanda Paul Kagame,” Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License.