Do referendums work? Questions rise after 'no' votes in Colombia, Hungary

On the rise over the past decade, referendums have been used to shore up political support and hedge politicians' bets. But do they oversimplify complex policies?

John Vizcaino/Reuters
University students and supporters of the peace deal signed between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels protest during a rally in front of Congress in Bogotá, Colombia, Oct. 3, 2016. Colombians narrowly rejected the peace deal in a referendum.

The merits of taking democracy directly to the people are getting a harsh rethink in the wake of two controversial referendums this week.

In Colombia, voters were told repeatedly that war was the only “Plan B” if they rejected a deal to end five decades of armed conflict with FARC rebels. Yet Colombians did just that on Sunday, in a shock result compared with that of June’s “Brexit.”

On the same day, a continent away, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was confident his nation would reject the European Union’s mandate for all members of the bloc to accept asylum-seekers. He was right – except that turnout was too low to validate the results.

Now, like the United Kingdom, both nations are confronting a period of political upheaval.

Referendums have been on the rise over the past decade, especially in Europe. From Britain’s plebiscite to leave the EU to questions over the size of EU membership and economic requirements for member nations, leaders have relied on the tool to shore up support for their parties or hedge their bets amid fraying political allegiances.

But while the votes are often heralded as the purest form of democracy, critics have panned them as politicking that reduces complex nuances into yes or no answers – posing risks to leaders who may underestimate the potentially monumental repercussions, especially if a vote does not go their way.

“On peace, on independence, on issues that are irreversible in some ways, I think it is reasonable that we go ask the people,” says Matt Qvortrup, a professor of political science at Coventry University and editor of the book “Referendums around the World.”

But, he says, “the most important thing is that the people are not animals to be herded around” – meaning that leaders need to time referendums carefully, prepare the populace, and not be overly dependent on the tool.

Misleading polls

In Colombia, polls confidently predicted that a popular vote on a deal to end a 52-year-old war with the nation's largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC), was all but guaranteed. It was widely supported internationally, receiving backing from the US White House to the Vatican.

But as was the case with Brexit, Colombians rejected the advice of the mainstream elite, revealing a degree of anger toward the FARC that was misunderstood outside of Colombia. It also served as a gauge, to some extent, of Colombia’s success against terrorism. For most Colombians, especially urbanites, guerrilla warfare is not a factor of daily life.

With the surprise outcome – and the extremely slim margin by which the No vote won (50.2 percent) – many Colombians are questioning the process of reducing a dense and complicated accord, signed Sept. 26, into a single question. 

For Adriana Ortíz, a Bogotá shop assistant and mother of a FARC soldier, the question’s parameters were too black and white.

“The situation here is so very complex that an either/or answer doesn’t work,” she says. “They should have told people more explicitly, if ‘Yes’ wins thisthis, and this will happen,’ and if ‘No’ wins, this will happen.’ ” 

Some famous diplomats would have agreed. Writing in Foreign Policy this summer, Mr. Qvortrup noted that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and US diplomat George Kennan argued that foreign affairs should be the realm of the “ ’prophetic minority’ who understood what was in the best interests of citizens.”

Still, foreign policy has increasingly been put to referendums. In Europe, according to Qvortrup's data, since 2000 there have been more than 40 on international matters, compared with 10 in the 1990s and three in the 1980s.

That is partially because domestic policies reach beyond national borders. The Brexit vote, for example, reverberates around the globe. Politics factors in as well: Leaders have relied on referendums to shore up their political base as party loyalties have become blurrier – and have learned that national votes can be used as leverage abroad.

Prime Minister Orban, for example, was trying bolster support at home as well as solidify his position as provocateur to Brussels, says Hungarian political analyst Peter Kreko.

Seeing trees but not forest?

But voters often fail to see the larger geopolitical consequences, he adds. Mr. Kreko argues that many of the European referendums, from the vote in the Netherlands against the EU association agreement with Ukraine to various secession drives, have destabilized the continent and been a clear winner for Russia.

“We are living in times in which we can see many more bad examples of referendums than good ones,” he says.

Leaders have turned to referendums for all kinds of undemocratic reasons, according to David Altman, an expert on democracy in Chile. In losing a referendum for constitutional reform aimed at re-election in Venezuela, the late President Hugo Chávez simply said he’d hold another until he won, which he did in 2009.

But Mr. Altman also argues that categorical conclusions about direct democracy are flawed, and that referendums are less open to manipulation than is commonly thought.  

In a piece in El País, written after the Brexit vote, Altman said that in the 109 popular votes launched in Latin America over 40 years, 64 received the support of the population, while 45 did not, showing the autonomy of voters. 

The decision to hold a referendum on peace in Colombia was considered a middle way, between a “fait accompli” and a constitutional convention that could have rewritten the basic laws of the country, says Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. But it misfired for President Juan Manuel Santos, who threw his full political weight behind the effort.

Changes in how people consume news may account for some of the growing challenges that referendums pose. In an age of social media, where controversial issues like Obamacare, Brexit, or this peace deal are picked apart and opposed – often with half-truths or outright lies – leaders get thrown on the defensive, often over narrow points. “They lose the ability to communicate a vision,” Mr. Isacson says. "It is easier to oppose than propose."

That makes education outreach even more important. Despite widespread circulation of the Colombian peace deal’s 297-page final document, many say communication with the public was poor.

“The government, so engaged in getting to the point of wrapping up the negotiations, didn’t put enough time and effort in explaining what the peace accord actually said,” says Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group in Washington.

Yet many Colombians, even those who supported the referendum, don't blame the tool used, and ultimately hope it serves democracy. 

Alejandro Michels, a lawyer and “Yes” supporter, says the outcome is fair.

“We have the opportunity to build a better peace, with greater public consensus,” he says.


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