2016 could spell the end for referendums

Even as the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, dedicated his Nobel Peace Prize to the citizens of his country in his acceptance speech, an atmosphere similar to a death at a wedding was evident. People tittered, smiles were forced, the sound of phones made security jump – all in all, it was pretty awkward.

Just six days ago, a peace deal with militant rebels of the FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) had crumbled due to a surprise rejection by the public, in a national referendum. The deal which would have ended a civil war that had spanned for 50 years, cost the lives of 2,20,000 Colombians and had displaced millions more – not to mention being the primary reason for President Santos’ Nobel – was suddenly up in the air.

Ministers and government officials, who had participated in very public and exuberant celebrations when the agreement was struck in August, were suddenly scuffing their feet. What had initially seemed to be a formality – a mere nod of assent from the citizenry – had blown up in their faces. Making the situation worse was that nobody seemed to have even remotely considered the possibility of such an outcome. The result, which was decided by a margin of around 0.2% of the total electorate, was also the second referendum of the year that had produced results contrary to expectations.

The first of course, is the much derided ‘Brexit’ referendum that has left most British politicians wistfully wishing for a time machine into the past.

India, in her adventurous 69 years of independence, has held a grand total of 5 referendums and none after 1970. There was supposed to be a sixth one – but, um, yeah – that’s not going to happen anytime soon. So, this takes an independent India out of the equation when it comes to referendums. But for the rest of the world, referendums have been a key aspect of democracy since ancient times.

Back in the fourth-century BC, the Greeks of Athens used a system of ‘People councils’, or assemblies where citizens would gather to vote upon issues of significance. These ranged from decisions of mild importance, such as choosing a God to honour at a festival, to crucial: the status of allegiances with other city-states. To keep things fair, the voters were allowed to listen to arguments made for and against the issue that they were to vote upon. The arguments were presented by speakers, unsurprisingly referred to as ‘politicians’ by the public, thus starting a practice carried forth a couple thousand years into the future, where politicians still bore the public to tears with their speeches.

The Romans, who not only ‘borrowed’ much of their culture, art, lifestyle, religion and importantly, wine, from the Greeks, also liked this idea of having assemblies. The ‘Plebian Council’ which made a number of decisions regarding the administration of the state was the Roman version of a referendum in ancient times. Sort of. In those days, most of the decision-making was left at the hands of the powerful and wealthy, and only the ones who fulfilled either criterion were allowed to vote.

One interesting outcome of this turn of events was the rise of the other name for referendums – the plebiscite. In latin, a ‘pleb’ is a ‘common man’, and plebiscite literally means, the ‘decree of the common people’. In modern times, the two words are often used interchangeably, although there are some legal differences in certain countries, such as Australia.

The modern version of the referendum where all citizens regardless of their social standing are allowed to vote came to be first practiced in 13th Century Switzerland. By 1847 the instrument of a referendum was fully incorporated into the Swiss constitution, whereby any proposal that accumulates 1,00,000 signatures from concerned citizens is subject to a referendum on the same. Take that, change.org.

Today, Switzerland ranks first in terms of referendums held with over 600 in its history as a modern state and 6 already in the year 2016. Australia comes a distant second with 44 referendums, as of August 2015.

Proponents of referendums have long argued that it was necessary for a representative democracy – where, we the citizens, elect an MP or MLA to shout, heckle and boo at parliament on our collective behalf – to have a component of direct democracy. As in, we the citizens, collectively switch off the entertainment going on the Lok Sabha channel, and step out to directly vote on a measure; one that usually affects the entire country.

The reason for this sentiment was the idea that putting certain decisions in the hands of the masses would allow elected officials to better understand the sentiments of the population. It would reduce the gap between the policy direction of the government and what the people really want. Additionally, it would keep an elected government from growing too complacent if the so-called ‘will of the people’ was exercised at regular intervals. Used wisely, a referendum would keep a government well-aware of its limitations, and would serve as an effective tool of checks and balances.

This is, however, based on the premise that the fundamentals of democracy were preserved and practiced as they were originally intended to be. MPs and Ministers are appointed by the people, and owe their jobs to them. They hold the offices they do, solely because we believed that they were more informed and thus could make better decisions to our benefit.

Except – 2016 has been a very strange year indeed. Unprecedented levels of discontent towards the current status quo has been witnessed on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Middle East. Populism has been on the rise globally – in the form of Trump in America, and a number of political parties supporting extremist views in Europe.

In simplest of terms, populism is a large-scale movement, or cause that supports a popular view which (usually) seems to be very appealing to a vast majority of the public. The catch is of course, that it is usually hard to execute.

For instance, one could run for the Indian parliament while promising to abolish college end-semesters once and for all. This would garner the support of a large number of voters; after all, India is a young country, and having an engineering degree these days seems to be more of a prerequisite than a choice. Cleverly though, this candidate keeps quiet on how exactly he intends to fulfil his promise. Instead, he whips up a huge frenzy of support through online media, by promising to allow students to ‘Take back control’ of education, and to ‘Make the education system great again’ by removing examinations.

Inspired by his words students do indeed vote for this candidate allowing him to win an election based on a popular agenda that is in the end quite impossible. Once elected, this candidate isn’t done; he tells his now-incensed supporters that the real reason for which examinations couldn’t be abolished was because of the previous government. By redirecting the anger of his voter base, he successfully builds more animosity towards his moderate opponents while growing his own popularity.

The above isn’t some blind example either. It’s exactly how the Brexit referendum, and Trump’s victory in the Republican primary played out. And since a primary asks voters to directly choose their party’s candidate, it can be considered to be a referendum as well. Both the British Leave, and Trump’s campaigns used a rhetoric of extreme hostility towards immigrants, while simultaneously invoking nationalistic feelings amongst the public. Words such as ‘Make America Great again’, and the infamous UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster served to fan these flames of populism – but entirely in a negative direction.


Worldwide, the atmosphere hearkens back to another era when nationalist feelings similarly ran high. Starting from 1929, German Nationalists pushed for several referendums that undid many of the sanctions placed on Germany after the First World War, and accelerated its slide into a fascist state. This culminated in the infamous Referendum of 1934, which granted Adolf Hitler the powers of both the offices of the Chancellor and President, essentially making him the de facto dictator of Germany.

History gives us sufficient warning then, to make the same mistakes again at our own peril. But populist parties are on the rise again, becoming legitimate political forces for the first time since WW2. All over much of Western Europe, extremist parties are beginning to poll in the double digits. Some of these people, we know, such as Nigel Farage of UKIP, who made a somewhat-random appearance for the Trump campaign as well. But others, such as Marine Le Pen of France, Frauke Petry of Germany and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands are consistently voicing the same rhetoric and are finding it to be frighteningly effective.

It’s a simple formula; launch an attack on an issue that is thought to be sensitive, such as race or inequality. Place the blame for economic problems and health services on refugees and the poor. Rinse and repeat. In the UK, hate crime against British citizens with Middle Eastern, or Asian parents was up by 42% post-brexit. Poland already has a populist government in place, causing some serious consequences so far to a liberal citizenry.

In an article published in The Guardian, columnist William Keegan argued that the numbers suggested that only 37% of the electorate had voted with a “true” Brexit in mind. The other 15%, he says, had opted to place a ‘protest’ vote against the government, with little awareness of the consequences. George Osborne, the former Chancellor echoed those concerns in a public speech in Chicago.

The situation in Colombia is fraught with emotional hurdles as well. The biggest reason for the peace deal with the rebels stalling out is a widespread view amongst the public that the militants were not being punished hard enough. This is fair enough, considering that the terms meant that most FARC foot soldiers would be allowed to surrender their arms peacefully, before being reabsorbed into society. Rebel leaders would face some repudiation, in the form of prolonged trials and community service – but none would face jail time.

In the history of the 50-year war, the rebels had gained notoriety for numerous crimes. Amongst others, they expanded the illegal drug trade, earning Colombia the unwanted tag of being the Cocaine capital of the world. They also funded their campaigns against the government by kidnapping wealthy Colombians for ransom. On several occasions, these victims were either killed, or were returned traumatized by experiences of physical and sexual abuse. It also didn’t help that the FARC had a penchant for whisking away stray children from the streets and the slums to serve as child soldiers.

Still, when the time came to vote upon the terms, much of the North – which had borne the brunt of the rebel incursions and the Coastal regions, where the drug trafficking had run rampant – returned majorities accepting the deal. Unfortunately, the hinterlands and the Urban regions, such as Bogota rejected the terms partly, it could be said, as an emotional reaction towards exacting revenge.

The results of Brexit and Colombia have exposed a global phenomenon where our elected representatives find that they do not know what the sentiment of the public is. That is because of the volatile nature of nationalism and populism. But instead of forcing governments to work harder to understand the public, it’s doing the opposite – it’s causing governments to mistrust the referendum.

Italy will be the next major European country to hold a referendum on its constitution. The President, Matteo Renzi needs to win in order to pass regulations to save Italy’s banks. But in this scenario where the public mood seems to shift imperceptibly with every refresh of its Facebook timeline, the outcome is anyone’s guess. However, for most of the world, including us, the referendum that matters the most will be the one on November 8th, when voters of the US are given a simple choice: Clinton…. Or Trump.

– Abinesh Kumar

Feeds NITT

The official college magazine and media house of NIT Trichy.

2 thoughts on “2016 could spell the end for referendums

  • October 14, 2016 at 8:58 am

    Very well written!! Interesting to the finish even though the subject chosen is a difficult one.


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