“DICTATORSHIP OF APPLAUSE”? THE RISE OF DIRECT REPRESENTATION IN CONTEMPORARY UKRAINE
Recent years have seen much critique of referendums within public discourse as well as in scholarly debates, not least due to the high-profile Brexit referendum. In Ukraine, on the contrary, debates on improving democracy through direct democracy measures have gained pace since the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019. Political newcomer Volodymyr Zelensky and his party Servant of the People (SP) both promoted referendums as a crucial means to reform Ukrainian democracy, notwithstanding Ukraine’s lack of positive experience with referendums and the divisiveness of society on central issues. This paper explores why and how direct democracy features so prominently in SP’s and the presidents’ rhetoric and looks into the implications of this salience for Ukrainian democracy. Drawing on Nadia Urbinati’s concept of ‘direct representation’ and Bernard Manin’s ‘audience democracy’, I argue that due to the centrist stance the above-mentioned political actors took on formerly defining societal cleavages, referendums and polls became prominent tools to reach out to their heterogeneous constituency. Indeed, SP’s diverse range of proposed direct democracy tools was quite innovative in the Ukrainian context, while the adoption of new legislation was inclusive and involved civil society organisations. In conclusion, although President Volodymyr Zelensky undoubtedly seems to perceive polls and referendums as a way to boost his popularity, thereby reducing the role of citizens to that of a reactive audience, the new legislation constitutes a significant qualitative change introducing possibilities of active citizen participation in political decision-making in Ukraine.
Copyright (c) 2021 Sophie Schmäing
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