Referendums: A trap for democracy?

Referendums: A trap for democracy?

Two important referendums took place on Oct. 2 – one in Hungary and the other in Colombia. 

In Hungary, 98 percent of voters voted against a European Union migrant resettlement plan that would require Hungary to admit a grand total of 1,294 refugees. But owing to the low turnout, the results were declared invalid. Still, as a representative of the rising extreme right in European politics and known for his harsh, anti-refugee rhetoric, PM Victor Orban interpreted the referendum result as a political victory and even proposed a constitutional amendment to make the results binding.

As for the referendum in Colombia, the results were met with disappointment not only there, but also in Turkey, perhaps because of the similarities to our own Kurdish question and our longing to see a happy ending.

After 52 years of civil war that killed about 260,000 and displaced 6 million, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) finally signed a peace deal two weeks ago.

President Juan Manuel Santos decided to take the peace deal to a referendum so as to strengthen his political legitimacy. The results, however, defied him. Albeit by a small margin, 50.23 percent of voters said “no” to the peace deal. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who campaigned for a “no,” argued that they did not oppose peace but that their intention was to bargain a better deal with FARC. Whatever the reasons were, uncertainty has cast a pall over Colombian politics in the wake of the referendum.

Speaking of referendums, we are still discussing the repercussions of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU. To many, then-PM David Cameron decided to take the issue to a referendum in order to secure votes in the upcoming general elections back in 2015 and as a sop to anti-EU segments in society. However, things didn’t go as planned, and it cost him his political post.

Democratic regimes frequently resort to referendums, but it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest this growing tendency is highly correlated to the global rise of populism. As a political ideology, populism refers to the mobilization of the masses to challenge the established order, the values it is based on and the elites as the representatives of this established order.

At first glance, the idea of “going to the people” and their involvement in the decision-making process sounds promising and fair, but when the underlying goals of the governments and the controversial results are carefully assessed, are referendums the right way to overcome political deadlocks within the system?
In referendums, people with limited knowledge about politics and current issues are expected to give a simple, Yes/No answer to complicated questions that actually require deeper elaboration.

Therefore, delegating important decisions to members of the electorate who are not fully enlightened about either the context or the consequences of their vote through a voting process that is open to political manipulations only creates new problems, instead of solving them.

Studies show that voters in a referendum do not simply make their choice on the question being posed, but actually grade the performance of the current government that calls the referendum. This indicates that partisanship can easily overshadow decisions, putting national interests at stake.

In addition, taking a sensitive issue to the polls could impose majoritarian solutions upon society, ignoring the voices of the minority. This not only increases polarization by undermining the chances of reconciliation, could become a tool to suppress the minority in society in the name of the national will.

No true supporter of democracy can deny the importance of the people’s free will. However, the political agenda of governments when resorting to referendums and the way they are initiated determine the results, which have long terms socio-political and economic consequences. Therefore, the pros and cons of referendums – especially their limitations – should be open to discussion since it is vitally important in terms of the efficient functioning of democracy.

Perhaps we should ponder political mechanisms that serve as alternatives to referendums to encourage larger segments of society to take part in the decision-making process within a more reconciliatory framework.
Until then, the deliberate choices of politicians, regardless of whether they’re on the side of pluralist democracy or majoritarian rule, will determine the color of world politics.