Recent events in Columbia and Hungary have precipitated new analysis of a recurring problem – the benefits and hazards of popular referenda. I grew up in one country where referenda were gifts that just wouldn’t stop giving. I later worked in several countries where similar problems resulted in the extremes of war. I now live in yet another which, in the relatively short time I’ve been here, has held two separate referenda of its own. The joke among friends is that I’m suspect zero – the index case from whence these things spring, bringing them with me wherever I go. From a professional standpoint, I like that there are enough cases to compare, contrast and learn – especially about what it means for the quality of democracy, political leadership, and mechanisms of governance.
In Foreign Policy – on The Dangers of Giving the Common Man a Say:
In general, the use of referendums is characteristic of times of upheaval — periods when the elites are uncertain of their support. Referendums were held in the wake of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the fall of communism. They followed the re-establishment of democracies in Greece in 1974 and Spain in 1976.
The problem is that, in times of upheaval, these plebiscites are as likely to backfire as to help politicians get their way, or consolidate support. That was true for Napoleon I, Charles de Gaulle, David Cameron — and now it is true for President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Victor Orban of Hungary. In the Colombian referendum, voters were asked to endorse a peace plan between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, and declined. In the Hungarian case, the government asked voters to reject the European Union’s plan for redistributing refugees across the EU; they did, but failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to render the vote valid.
And from the Eurasia Group, which gets into Letting the People Speak?:
Populist VOTES are backfiring on the very leaders who set them
The collapse of Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC over the weekend is just the latest instance of a head of state staking their reputation on a popular vote and having it backfire, big time. Think back to Brexit last summer, where British Prime Minister David Cameron put his political career on the line by promising to resign if Britons voted to leave the European Union. And then what happened? Britons voted ‘leave’ and David Cameron…left.