Not everyone knows how to fix a referendum

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By: Ghui

Referendums are supposed to be the ultimate right of the citizens of a given country to decide on fundamental issues in the nation – issues that are deemed so sacrosanct that nothing short of a direct question to the electorate is deemed legitimate. While the concept of every citizen having a say on such important matters is the fairest way to ensure the validity of any decision, the referendum process only achieves its objectives of fairness and equality if certain conditions are met.

Firstly, are the issues put forward for vote issues which the general public understands?

The narrow “Yes/No” construct of a referendum means that it does not give room to anything between either a yes or a no. The electorate is asked a direct question in which they can say yea or neigh. The danger of a protest or confused vote can therefore lead to much undesired consequences.

Let’s take the recent referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) as an example. On 23 June 2016, the UK shockingly voted to leave the European Union (EU). Leaving academic arguments of whether or not the EU is a democratic structure aside, it is a fact that despite its flaws, the UK does reap significant benefits from being a member. Without going into too much detail, access to the single market is probably the most significant and vital benefit that the UK reaps by being a member of the EU (https://www.ft.com/content/1688d0e4-15ef-11e6-b197-a4af20d5575e).  Being a country that imports far more than it exports, diminished access to the single market would likely lead to price increments in many essential food items that comes from other EU member states.

It would appear that many of the voters who voted for “Brexit” voted based on an emotional belief that foreigners from other EU states have taken British jobs because of the freedom of movement between member states in the EU. While I do not trivialise the concerns of the disenfranchised, will the increased costs of essentials such as food items really achieve a better life for them?

Have pro Brexit politicians failed to comprehensively warn voters on the possible downsides of Brexit? Have Remain politicians failed to adequately educate the voters on what EU membership has done for the UK? In short, have the public been given the tools to make an informed choice?

Secondly, there is a danger that a referendum can be misused to make a political statement as opposed to bring about meaningful change at the expense of the country.

Take the recent referendum in Hungary as an example. While 98% of voters voted against an EU plan to temporarily resettle 1,300 refugees in their country, is a vote whereby less than 50% of the electorate participated really valid? Under Hungarian law, a referendum whereby less than 50% of eligible voters participated is not valid. Despite this “minor” detail, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has wasted no time in trumping the legitimacy of the vote. In short, we have a situation whereby a process that is meant to represent the collective will of the country has been used to legitimise something that in reality only represents the will of less than 50% of the voters. (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/editorials/from-colombia-to-hungary-the-dark-side-of-modern-referendums/article32298525/)

Arguably, those that did not vote were obviously not bothered with whatever the result was and are not adversely affected by the results of the vote. But since when can guesswork, however educated, be taken as an indication for legitimacy?

Has the very purpose of what a referendum is supposed to signify been negated?

Colombia is yet another country that may suffer long term repercussions from the referendum bug. After 52 years of bloodshed, peace with the FARC guerillas was in sight.Yet, efforts for peace have now been endangered because of a referendum which manifestly did not serve the interests of Colombians.

The referendum in Colombia was not even required under the law. Yet, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos decided to push ahead, hoping that the so called legitimacy would boost his popularity. His unpopularity proved to be a distracting sideshow as voters ended up mistakenly equating voting for the peace deal as voting for the beleaguered Prime Minister, leading to a result that will have far reaching consequences for the country. In reality, these were two separate issues which ended up being confused because of voter emotions. I believe that Colombians wanted peace with FARC but not for Juan Manuel Santos to stay in power. Along the way, the issues became enmeshed in confusion. Such is the possible outcome of a poorly managed and misunderstood referendum.

Juan Manuel Santos took a political gamble that not only did not pay off for him but took the entire country’s future down with him.

The same can be said of the UK whereby some have not unreasonably concluded that the schoolboy feud between Boris Johnson and ex PM David Cameron led to the disaster that is Brexit. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36613261)

Does this mean that referendums are pointless, outdated and ought to be repealed?

In my opinion, the objectives behind a referendum are sound and its concept should definitely be retained. The process of it however, would need to be tweaked in order for its objectives to be fulfilled.

A change that can be made without the need for a referendum ought not be put to a referendum in the first place. Referendums are costly affairs and for it to bear the weight of legitimacy, it ought not to be called on a whim. Most countries that have the referendum process are countries run on democratic principles. There are elections whereby political leaders are voted into government. As such, we ought to trust that politicians will not pass a law that will prove so unpalatable that it will lead to their downfall at the next election.

Further, most constitutions would have been drafted to ensure that the most sacrosanct values of that country are protected and if that particular issue is not included, it is perhaps one that can be decided upon by the ruling government of the day without a need for referendum.

This is especially the case if the result of a referendum could lead to damaging divisiveness that is counterproductive.

A recent attempt at a referendum has been shot down in Australia on the premise that this is not an issue that needs to go to a referendum at all. The law can be changed without a referendum and so, it may well be pointless to begin a process that can end up causing needless divisions. (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/11/world/australia/australia-same-sex-marriage-referendum.html)

However, it is important to remember that there have been successful referendums as well. On 23 May 2015, the Irish voted conclusively to permit gay marriage via a referendum. Although a referendum was not needed for that law to be changed, the referendum sent an international statement on the Irish commitment to equality.

At the end of the day, before embarking on the route of calling a referendum, we have to ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve with a referendum. Is a referendum necessary in order to change the law? Do the voters have all the requisite information required to make an informed choice? If the answers are not a resounding yes, DESIST!

If the referendum is going to be used to make a statement, the politician in question better be damned sure that it is going to succeed.


Editor’s Note:

Singapore may be the only country in the world where the Government had a referendum and the results came back to support the Government’s position.

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Singaporeans voted for merger with Malaysia in 1962 and all three choices available to voters in the referendum were for merger – in different ways.