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National referendums are no democratic magic bullet

What a mess. Three months after a slim majority in the UK voted in a national referendum in favour of leaving the European Union, Colombians have rejected a peace deal to end 52 years of armed conflict with the Farc guerrillas, throwing the country into confusion about its future. With counting almost completed, the No vote led with 50.23% to 49.76%, a difference of 61,000 votes. Turnout was low with fewer than 38% of voters casting their votes.

Both referendums were voluntary, constitutionally non-binding and divided an entire country. Now, does that mean that we should have no more or many more referendums on important political questions? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.


Two similar cases

In theory, I am very fond of direct democracy, and in particular referendums. To a degree, it appears to be an intensification and advancement of representative democracy. And it’s pretty en vogue. That’s only logical: I believe we find ourselves at the end of a globalisation and democracy cycle, so, naturally, leaders and people alike feel the need to change something about the way we conduct our democracies.

But lately, this positive view has been called into question.

The parallels between the decisions in the UK and Colombia are apparent: Both outcomes were unimaginable only a day before the actual vote. Close friends and family in the UK were sure it would go the other way. Colombian polls predicted that the Yes camp would win with a comfortable 66% share. President Santos had been very confident of a Yes majority, even admitting that he did not have a plan B and that Colombia would return to war if the No vote won.

His opponents, led by former conservative president Álvaro Uribe, whose father was killed by Farc fighters, managed to persuade a thin majority of Colombians that the peace deals was bad for the country – through populist rhetoric and classic scare tactics.

Just as the Brexit referendum wasn’t really about leaving the EU, the Colombian vote wasn’t really about peace versus war.


Bubble democracy

Another similarity: Browsing through my Twitter timeline or Facebook news feed, a majority against the peace accords simply seemed impossible (my friends in Colombia we sure as well). The same goes for the Brexit campaign. But we increasingly live in bubbles or echo chambers: Algorithms feed us the news/opinion bites we want to hear based on our initial position. A dangerous circle.

Direct democracy is a tricky thing. Breaking down complex issues dealing with a nation’s or region’s future into simple yes-no questions can be misleading (in a public referendum, the Swiss have just given new mass surveillance powers to their national intelligence agencies).

What to do then? For starters, we shouldn’t restrict the use of public referendums per se. But rather give them a strong, clear constitutional framework, establishing binding rules as regards its limits in scope, purposes, funding, and campaign rules. Most importantly, they should be enacted bottom-up, not the other way around. One might even contemplate multi-vote referendums with more than one question to answer. A turnout minimum of 50% to make the vote valid should also be on the table (hello, Hungary). And let’s all spend more on education in general, that seems to have helped as an insulation against political populism.

After all, we might just need some good old democrats, who actually want to protect our democracies (yeah, they still exist). Let’s vote for them.

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