Editor, The World Today
One of the lessons of 2016 is that referendums are a weapon that can blow up in the faces of those who deploy them. We saw this in June in Britain’s vote on leaving the European Union. When it was called by the then prime minister, David Cameron, the political class was certain the result would be a vote to stay. Even the pro-Brexit campaigners did not imagine they would win. Yet the result was a convincing 52-48 in favour of Leave.
Figurines of the leader of the Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Naples

In Colombia, opinion polls suggested a 66 per cent majority to approve an agreement to end the 50-year-old FARC insurgency. Yet the result on Sunday went the other way, if only by a tiny margin. As in Britain, there was no Plan B for the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos. It is unclear if the vote means the end of the ceasefire or fresh negotiations to try to extract a better deal from the guerrillas.  

In Italy, the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, may also find he has plunged his country into uncertainty with a referendum in December on constitutional changes. Renzi says these will make Italian governments more stable, but his critics see it as a Berlusconi-style power grab. Renzi has promised to resign if the No vote wins, though he is trying to row back on that.

In Europe Renzi’s demise would be seen as another sign of the failure of the centre-left and centre-right to maintain their hold on power (the Spanish socialists have just collapsed) at a time of rising extremes. See our review of Europe’s fraught election season here.

How then should politicians use referendums? Matthew Qvortrup, an expert on referendums (and author of a recent biography of Angela Merkel), says it is dangerous to use a referendum for party political reasons, such as prompted Cameron to call the Brexit vote. Most referendums in Europe are ‘ideological’ and misconceived, he says. More properly, they should be a brake on representative democracy, ‘the people’s veto’ on irreversible decisions taken by parliaments.

He argues that a parliamentary majority can espouse positions which are not held by the people who voted the MPs in. In Scotland, for example, the pro-independence SNP won a clear majority in 2011 which could have permitted it to declare independence. Yet the majority of the population was against, as proved by the 2014 referendum. This is a clear example of why Qvortrup says referendums are a necessary ‘extra check on the elected politicians’.

And what about Colombia? The No vote won by a mere 53,894 votes. The number of spoiled or rejected ballots is almost five times the margin of victory. So, far from settling the issue, referendums can just as easily be inconclusive.  

We saw that in Hungary with Prime Minister Victor Orban’s referendum to reject EU quotas of migrants. Ninety-eight per cent of Hungarians who voted endorsed the prime minister’s bid to close the door to refugees. But the vote was constitutionally invalid because fewer than half the electorate turned out, the No vote being reflected in a boycott. This is a pure form of ‘ideological’ referendum which allows the prime minister to pursue his policy, even if there is no constitutional validity to the result.  You can read Qvortrup’s interview here.