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There must come a point, if it hasn’t arrived already, when politicians begin to realise that referenda are rather like early firearms; unwieldy and far more likely to blow up in your face than hurt your enemy. David Cameron thought the promise of a referendum would sate the troublesome elements of his own party, undermine UKIP and, in the event it actually happened, be easily won, further establishing his position. In case you have managed to avoid the news of the past few months, it didn’t quite go to plan.
This week two more referenda have gone sour on the men who called them. Victor Orban hoped a referendum would demonstrate once and for all that the Hungarian people would rally round their leader and reject the despotic EU as they attempt to impose a quota of just under 1300 refugees. Of those who voted an astonishing 98% supported his call to reject the quota. The problem was that the opposition parties campaigned by calling for people not to vote, effectively vetoing the result by guaranteeing a turnout of less than 50%.
Orban will claim he has a mandate to go back to Brussels and fight for his vision of state sovereignty. He will do so from a far weaker position than he would have liked; the failure to get above 50% turnout is a humiliation, not least following the biggest advertising campaign in Hungarian history, with reports that over 25% of all advertising hoardings were used to campaign for Orban’s position. For a man who plays on the image of a popular strongman with the will of his people behind him this vote has left Orban weaker than it should have.
It is the Colombian referendum on a proposed peace deal with FARC that has the most immediately potential for harm. The longest running war in the Western hemisphere has raged since 1964. An estimated 200,000 have died, communities have been shattered, the national economy is nowhere near where its potential suggests it should be, and who can begin to guess the collateral damage from the drugs trade which has funded the conflict for decades. After four years of negotiations President Juan Manuel Santos staked his presidency on the peace deal, confidently declaring that there was “no plan B”.Despite polling putting the pro-peace deal side on 66% in the run up, a concerted campaign led by former President Alvaro Ulcide (whose father was killed in a FARC kidnapping) gained ground by expressing outrage that FARC soldiers and non-combatants would be given full amnesties for decades of atrocities. Ultimately Santos was doomed by a turnout of just 38%, too few pro voters showed up to vote, and a more motivated opposition won through, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
It is notable that in none of these three cases was anyone obliged to call a vote by their constitution. The cynic would suggest Cameron only promised a referendum because he wanted to appease his own party without being forced to take a stance himself. In the event, once it became clear that the vote was going to be close Cameron was forced to come out swinging, which only served to make his previous efforts to sit on the fence, and therefore his whole stance, look less credible.
Santos, his opponents suggest, wanted a referendum to deflect the criticism that he had conceded too much to FARC by allowing him to point to a popular mandate. Orban wanted a clear and unambiguous popular backing for a policy that will win him no friends in Brussels. In all three cases they might with hindsight look back with regret on their choice of instrument.
The lesson here is that as a means of political control referenda are notably ineffective. The electorate is volatile, single issue campaigns can gain their own momentum, and at the moment defiance of the political order seems to be the unifying feature of global politics. We might speculate that the electorate might be less likely to reject the establishment if their politicians were more prepared to take hard decisions with genuine moral conviction. Referenda have become viewed as a political way of having your cake and eating it – allowing you to claim a popular mandate for a contentious position without having to own the single responsibility of making a final decision. The only blessing of this sorry situation is that politicians must finally be waking up to the truth: you can’t control a referendum, it’s not an effective tool for governance, and we should dearly hope its time is coming to a close.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos. @BenedictWRyan
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.