The sounds of silence: Democracy and the referendum on (FYRO)/(North) Macedonia

Liridona Veliu

This piece is a summary of my article titled “The sounds of silence: Democracy and the referendum on (FYRO)/(North) Macedonia”. The article is a critique of democratic theory’s insistence to ascribe meanings to nonvoters’ silences. I argue that ambiguous silence can be analytically valuable if we look at what it does rather than what it means. The referendum on North Macedonia’s name and its aftermath is used as an illustration


Voice, silence and democratic theory

What would democracy do if there was no voice? Vox populi, vox Dei [from Latin: The voice of the people (is) the voice of God] as a fundamental democratic postulate places speech at the heart of democracy and silence as its adversary. Aristotle claimed that “man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal… [f]or…man alone of the animals possesses speech.”1Aristotle, Politics (London; Cambridge: William Heinemann LTD and Harvard University Press, 1932), I. 10. 1253a11. Since “man” is “by nature a political animal,”2Aristotle, Politics (London; Cambridge: William Heinemann LTD and Harvard University Press, 1932), I. 9. 1253b9 his political nature then actualizes itself exactly through speech. Relying on this Aristotelian philosophy, Hannah Arendt notably declared that “speech is what makes man a political being”3Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]), 4.. Both Aristotle and Arendt and many other prominent scholars of democratic theory that succeeded them see the vocal citizen as the ideal active citizen. This places silence—as speech’s most natural adversary—also in an adversarial relationship with the “democratic”.

The lack of voice and speech as translated into non-voting or abstention has generally been considered a characteristic of the apolitical, unparticipating, and undemocratic citizen. Few are the cases in which silence is treated as acceptable, and this only as the outcome of choice made by nonvoters due to carefully considered reasons or exceptional circumstances. This special status to speech which has traditionally left silence as analytically ostracized when it comes to democratic theory (and by extension also to scholarship on citizenship, voting, and abstention), has channeled scholarship towards seeking to expose the meanings behind nonvoters’ silences, speaking in this way on behalf of the silent ones. What of cases, however, where a myriad of other untheorized meanings could serve as an impetus for the silent democratic citizen? Could/should democratic scholarship possibly theorize all possible meanings behind silences? Further, what of cases in which silence can be traced back to no meanings whatsoever? Is the latter even an imaginable scenario for democratic theory and with this also for those who study it? If it is, what is its analytical potential, if any? This is where later International Relations (IR) scholarship on the study of silence could be of help to democratic theory.

Bridging the gap: Democracy and ambiguous silence

Democratic scholarship should consider adopting some insights from recent IR conceptualizations of silence found particularly in the work of Xavier Guillaume among others, who argue for studying silence-as-doing rather than as meaning. This epistemic move toward studying silence-as-doing is importantly conditioned by recognizing silence’s nature as inherently ambiguous. To better understand what silence does, therefore, first, no assumption of the meaning and understanding of silence can take place before any understanding of the rules of the game it participates in is reached; and then, this understanding of the context requires an analysis which elucidates the role of silence, and which is to be based on “the reactions to, and thus interpretations of, the silence rather than its potential meanings.”4Xavier Guillaume, “How to do things with silence: rethinking the centrality of speech to the securitization framework.” Security Dialogue 49(6): 476–492, 489.

Why should democratic theory be open to this? Because such an epistemological shift would contribute to supporting democratic scholarship in achieving a better understanding of the politics surrounding silent nonvoting as a democratic mechanism while avoiding speaking on behalf of the silent nonvoters and becoming their ventriloquist as it does currently. Indeed, the analytical potential of silence-as-doing, will not help scholars to reveal the ‘true’ meanings behind silences. However, in a self-reflective manner, it would help to unravel, unpick, and disclose the democratic politics of the situation which is inseparable from democratic normativity. As the case of North Macedonia below reveals, the very speech imperative of democratic theory can be utilized by political actors for the furthering of their own political agendas, rather than fostering a democratic ideal in which everyone speaks. Democratic scholarship can detect and call out those situations when this takes place, but first, it must be able to engage in a self-reflective critique of its relationship with silence; and second, it must consider how the ambiguity of silence can be a cherished analytical tool rather than a hindrance to overcome.

(FYRO)/(North) Macedonia: The ambiguous silence of nonvoters

The referendum of September 30, 2018, on Macedonia’s change of name into North Macedonia, is a useful example to build on this synthesis between democratic and IR scholarship on silence. The referendum was declared inconclusive due to the low turnout of 36.91 percent of Macedonia’s eligible voters from which 91.46 percent of voters voted “yes” and 5.65 percent voted “no.”5Official Gazette of the Republic of Macedonia (2018) Izveštaj za konečnite rezultati od glasanjeto na referendumot na državno nivo, 30 Septemvri 2018 godina [Report on the Final Results of the State Referendum Vote, September 30, 2018], 8 October, Issue 186. Though inconclusive, the silence of the nonvoters was treated as nothing close to being ambiguous. Its meanings were immediately translated by the political actors in the country and the international arena, with each giving to it its own flavors, interpreting it as per their own political interests. Table 1 below contextualizes the two main interpretations of the nonvoters’ silence surrounding the name referendum: silence as boycott and silence as consent.

Table 1. Interpretations and reactions to the results of the referendum of September 30, 2018, in North Macedonia

This, at first sight, might seem like just everyday politics and separate from the democratic ideal of speech. The former might be true, but not the latter. The article’s intention is to precisely treat the politics which surrounds silence as important to democratic scholarship. It does this first and foremost by acknowledging silence as of analytical potential precisely due to and not despite its inherently ambiguous nature. This demands for a postulate of analysis which holds that the silence of nonvoters per se can only be meaningless unless the speech of those who remain silent intervenes. As such, any interpretation of the same can only be speculative, and thus we must refrain from such an endeavor. It then reaches toward contextualized interpretations of that silence, which is what it epistemologically can be certain of, and allows for silence to irrupt the same, uncovering the inconsistencies within and among those interpretations. This then reveals that it is precisely the speech imperative of democratic theory which allows for such interpretations of silence to emerge. It enables all actors to impose their own meanings which best serve their political agendas to what can only be an ambiguous silence, while claiming to be democratically correct. The speech-centered approach of democratic theory is utilized to serve political goals rather than to reach the democratic ideal of “everyone having a vo-ice/te.”

There is yet no self-reflective epistemological basis in democratic theory to take note and call out this dynamic whereby the speech clause in democracies is turned against its own logic and used for political gain. Hitherto approaches of studying silence as meaning focus only on why the nonvoters did not vote, and not on what did their representatives do with their silence. Instead, if scholarship turns its gaze toward the interpretations of silence and their context, it would be able to detect and question how the adversarial relationship between democratic theory and silence is utilized for the collection of political points rather than achieving the democratic ideal in which everyone votes. To do this it should acknowledge the analytical power of ambiguous silence i.e. one without (a clear) meaning, which irrupts and discloses the political game of those who speak on behalf of the citizens (of North Macedonia, in this case) as defenders of democracy. This article provides a groundwork for further explorations of this potential.


Liridona Veliu is a Ph.D. student at the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. Her research focuses on the links between ‘balkanization’ and the Euro-Atlantic integration processes of Western Balkans.

Previous Post
The EU and the future of the Dayton Peace Agreement
Next Post
Debating Peace in Contested Spaces: Foregrounding Adivasi Assertion in Revolutionary India
Menu