The overuse of referendums only undermines democratic process

As the leaders of Britain, Colombia and Hungary have found, turning to the people to decide on complex issues is a double-edged sword

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 1:26am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 October, 2016, 1:26am

Referendums have been given a bad name of late by outcomes that have caused social turmoil and political uncertainty. From the British vote to leave the European Union to an insufficient turnout in Hungary to block migrants and to the rejection of an already-signed peace deal with rebels in Colombia, their worth to the democratic process has increasingly come under scrutiny. Leaders who had expected citizens to vote a particular way have suddenly found planned policies and even legitimacy in tatters. But there would be no such questions had what is one of the most powerful tools of elected government been used sparingly and with an eye on what was being put to the populace to decide.

Prime ministers David Cameron of Britain and Viktor Orban of Hungary and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had called referendums believing the result would go their way and in the process, boost their hold on power. The votes did not go as they had expected and their nations are worse off for the experience. Pro-EU Cameron put so much political capital into his decision that he was forced to step down as leader and has subsequently bowed out of politics altogether. His nation is now even more socially divided, Colombia risks descending back into violence with Farc guerillas and a rift between Hungary and the EU has widened.

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Referendums are not about a leader’s popularity, but deciding an issue that affects all in society. As a simple yes or no vote, the question asked has to be a straightforward one for which clear arguments for and against can be made – Ireland’s approval last year of same-sex marriage is one such example. Complex matters or deals arrived at through tough bargaining do not sit easily with such a process; that is best left for negotiators and politicians who have had time to debate and discuss to decide. There is a risk of voter fatigue if they are turned to too often.

Cameron, Orban and Santos, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize despite his country’s narrow rejection of the accord in hopes he could revive the process, either ignored or were not interested in these realities. As a result, their citizens were left to make choices that they either did not properly understand or were unprepared to vote upon.

A referendum can be a double-edged sword; it can just as easily go against a government as for it. Care and preparedness are necessary when deciding to turn to it to gauge the opinion of voters. For that reason, it has to be used prudently.