By Omeed Alerasool
Of all the policy lessons to take away from 2016, here is a simple one: referendums should not be deciding major changes and reforms in established democracies. A number of world leaders called for national referendums in the past year. They mistakenly thought that linking a major reform or decision to their personal reputations in a standalone vote would help guarantee the desired outcome and result in a stronger political mandate. As these referendums demonstrate, placing a major decision up for a simple "Yes" or "No" vote is unwise, regardless of the specifics of the referendums. Instead of referendums, democratic leaders in established democracies should turn to more traditional routes for reform: specifically, through legislation passed by the parliament or congress.
The leaders who have called for such referendums believed that there was a "correct" answer to the binary votes, expecting cooler heads would ultimately prevail. Some even expected that their political challengers would be put away by an astounding show of support by the populace. But these leaders were wrong, and the results could not be further from the truth. The British stunned the world by voting to leave the European Union, ending the premiership of David Cameron. Italians voted against constitutional reform, resulting in Prime Minister Matteo Renzi stepping down. Colombian voters shot down a historic peace accord with the FARC rebel group, threatening to upend the agenda and political future of President Juan Manuel Santos.
These campaigns put in thousands of hours to make a case for a simple one-word answer. But in a time when passionate appeals can trump logical arguments, it does not matter how much time David Cameron, Matteo Renzi, or Juan Manuel Santos spend making a case to voters. Decisions can be made in a split-second, and "Take Back Control" resonates.
If all it can take is a protest vote to put an end to a major national initiative, it is clearly the method that is problematic. The problem is not the voters (many have justifiably lost faith in traditional democratic governance), but the structure of these binary referendums. Except for where there are explicit constitutional requirements, putting a major decision in the hands of those elected to serve and represent the voters is a better idea. This not to say that major decisions should be taken away from the people, but rather that there should be more effort required to contribute. There is a reason direct democracy has fallen out of practice.
Modern democracies are designed as representative systems, with checks and balances, intended to provide avenues for citizens to affect change without needing to be career politicians. Referendums are not more democratic than modern systems, and thus should not be in a democratic leader's toolbox. Hypothetically, imagine Brexit without the referendum: If there truly is such a strong desire to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union, British voters could contact their respective MPs and make their voices heard. If there is enough support from voters, the political mandate for Parliament to initiate Brexit would be clear. And if the people's representatives failed to heed their constituents, voters could elect new representatives that would implement a withdrawal from the European Union in the next election. This process is the core of democratic governance - referendums that sidestep the give-and-take of electoral politics are not.
The tendency for referendums is likely a product of the times. Ironically, traditional institutions of government are increasingly seen as incapable and untrustworthy in many established democracies. For a leader facing pressures for change, a referendum can be the "easy way out." Why fight a prolonged political battle over the fate of the United Kingdom within the European Union, when a national referendum (with an expected favorable outcome) could put the issue to rest once and for all? Yet, the true solution to the dissatisfaction with traditional democratic institutions will not be a bypass of the entire system, it will be a demonstration of its utility.
The Colombian peace deal with FARC is a prime example of where representative democracy can succeed where referendums fail. The historic peace accord was initially put to a national referendum by President Santos. With less than 40 percent turnout, the vote failed - a result of a populist right-wing campaign against the deal and hurricane weather conditions in parts of the country. However, Santos pressed on and returned to the negotiation table, soon emerging with a revised peace deal. Even as former president and populist leader Álvaro Uribe denounced the new accord, calling for a new referendum, Santos pushed forward. The new agreement, largely reflective of the original deal, skipped a second referendum and was sent to the Colombian Congress, where it easily passed.
Within established constitutional democracies, referendums undermine the democratic process. For decisions that are so contentious and consequential, it should not be so effortless to impact the result. There will always be valid opposition to major national efforts, but these battles are worth fighting and they are best fought by the people's representatives in the halls of parliament or congress. If national budgets were put up to a popular referendum each year, would governments be able to function? Likely not.
Omeed Alerasool is the Director and Managing Editor of the Fellowship Program at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He earned his BA in economics and international studies from Boston College. The views expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not reflect or represent the views of any of the organizations with which the author is affiliated.