This is turning into the nightmarish year of the referendum

A difficult road ahead.
A difficult road ahead.
Image: Reuters/John Vizcaino
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Referendums—once described (paywall) as “a device of dictators and demagogues” by Margaret Thatcher—have now become an important staple of modern democracy. In the last decade, there were more than 40 referendums a year across the world.

In 2016, governments have held a number of referendums that touched on a wide range of issues—and many of these didn’t result in the expected outcome, with many voters using it as an opportunity to punish unpopular governments. In fact, the ramifications of these referendum results have been so momentous that some are calling for an end to referendums all together.

The shocks don’t stop

The latest shock results came on Oct. 2, when Hungary voted on whether to accept quotas for resettling refugees—with the overwhelming majority voting no. On the same day, the world woke up to the shock that Colombian voters had rejected a peace deal to end the country’s bitter 52-year civil war.

Hungary’s plebiscite was over a plan by the EU to force it to resettle just 1,294 refugees. The government called on voters to reject EU quotas for resettling asylum seekers currently held in camps. The results of the referendum was overwhelming—nearly 98% of participants voted against EU refugee resettlement quotas—but invalid, as only 43.9% of the Hungarian electorate voted. (Hungarian law requires at least 50% of voters to turn out to validate a referendum).

Prime minister Viktor Orbán is, unsurprisingly, still claiming victory and promised to change Hungary’s constitution to make the decision binding. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, Colombia voted on a deal to end a civil war that lasted half a century, killing at least 220,000 people and displacing more than 7 million.

The government was able to broker a peace deal with FARC, the country’s largest left-wing guerrilla group, which settles a range of issues such as political power and drug trafficking. The deal was rejected by the narrowest of margins (less than 0.5%)—leaving a nation, and the rest of the world, in shock (paywall).

Those referendums followed the biggest surprise of all earlier this year, when Britain voted to leave the European Union in late June, ignoring broad economic consensus that such a decision would be disastrous for the country. Though at least it was a clear majority—52%, or 17 million people, voted to leave the EU.

David Cameron’s gamble would result in him resigning, the pound getting crushed (it is currently at a 31-year low against the dollar and a three-year-low against the euro), and three-quarters of British CEOs thinking of moving their business out of the UK.

Remember NZ’s flag?

These referendums have gotten the headlines, but there have been others. In the tropical paradise of the Bahamas, the government called a special referendum in June. Voters were asked to accept or reject four amendments, ranging from allowing both mothers and fathers to transmit nationality to their children (currently, children born abroad could obtain Bahamian citizenship only from their father) to enshrining gender equality as a principle into the constitution.

Despite running an aggressive yes campaign, in a referendum that was supported by several United Nations organizations, the government failed to convince the electorate. All four amendments were voted down.

The year of disastrous referendums started of innocent enough. New Zealand prime minister John Key ordered a binding referendum on whether to change the country’s flag—despite public indifference to the idea. Key had advocated for changing the flag since 2014. The country was eventually asked to choose between the old flag and the alternative one. Over half of voters—56.6%—chose to stick with the current flag,

Key was widely criticized for spending $17 million on the referendum—money, which critics argued, could have been better spent tackling child poverty, for example.

After all that has happened, the world is closely watching Italy’s upcoming referendum on constitutional reform, which will be held on Dec. 4. The Italian government had to call the referendum after failing to secure the two-thirds endorsement in parliament needed for constitutional reform.

These reforms would make the Italian government, which has had four prime ministers since 2010, more stable. The constitutional reform would tackle overlapping responsibilities between central and regional governments and reduce the power of the Senate.

Current prime minister Matteo Renzi bet his career on the referendum, saying he would resign if the proposals were voted down, but eventually backtracked when it became clear that voters would use the referendum as a protest vote against him and his government.

After all these shocks, a head of state might want to think twice about asking the people to vote on something.