When Governments Abdicate Their Responsibilty, Chaos Ensues

What is a referendum? A referendum is a single-issue vote by which the state delineates decision making on a controversial issue to the people. In the past year, we’ve seen two issues which have long divided nations come to a head at the ballot box, and the results have been a disaster.

Last week, the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, announced a peace deal that would end the armed conflict with FARC that has plagued the country for more than 50 years, disarm and demilitarise the rebels, and guarantee the former guerilla organisation seats in the National Congress. In order to “legitimise” the treaty, President Santos put the vote to a plebiscite, asking  the people to vote for their future. He banked the success of the referendum on the sole fact that his people were tired of war, and would surely vote for peace.

The ensuing debate over the week leading up to the vote was not about the actual treaty itself or what the future would look like. Instead, opponents of the peace deal focused on the past- on the war with FARC and the acts of terror, the kidnappings, the car bombs and the families destroyed by the carnage of war.

Fear and anger won. Even though only 30% of the Colombian people turned out to vote in this “historical” referendum, those against the treaty won, with 50,2% of voters rejecting peace with FARC. The country is now on edge, with escalation always possible. President Santos and FARC leader, Timoleón Jiménez, have vowed to preserve the ceasefire until the terms expire on 31 October, but the vote against the treaty as a major blow to a more permanently peaceful norm.

The problem with referendums is that they become an outlet for unrelated grievances and bear little to no relationship to the question actually being posed. Take Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, for example, who earlier this year proposed a referendum on the ratification of an trade and economic integration deal between the EU and Ukraine. The treaty had been agreed by the government, ratified by all other EU states and was 2,135 pages long. The Dutch rejected it, not because they had done their homework but because they were using the ballot box to protest against a weak government, against EU dogma and against the possible eastward expansion of the union. Rutte was ambushed and called the No vote “disastrous”. Vladimir Putin rubbed his hands with glee and called it a truly democratic act.

Then, of course, there was the EU referendum in the United Kingdom on 23 June. As Brexit talks and decisions move forward, it is becoming clear to people on both sides of the debate in the UK, and between London and Brussels, that the Government does not have a clear strategy on how to withdraw from the European Union. Cabinet ministers contradict each other, Downing Street has to clarify, and then it all happens again. Too many ministers have competing interests and ideas, and Theresa May, the Prime Minister, hasn’t laid out a clear path forward. Europe is growing impatient, and the markets have responded in kind. When Ms May did, finally, suggest in a speech before the Conservative Party Conference was due to begin, that No. 10 would initiate Brexit by proposing a law rescinding all European statutes on the books in Westminster, the Pound took a nosedive and futures looked dim. A “hard-Brexit” appears likely.


Most democratic governments that deploy referendums do so out of weakness. They want to pass responsibility-making the tough decisions- from themselves, to the people, who don’t know any better.  That’s how President Santos and David Cameron ended up on the defensive so quickly after the vote. The Brexit referendum was a way of pacifying the Conservative Party. Cameron never wanted it, Osborne never wanted it. Farage and prominent eurosceptics in Cameron’s backbenches did, and the public pressure forced the PM’s hand.

We just saw Hungarian PM Viktor Orban attempt a referendum to prevent the EU from sending refugees to Hungary, masked by a question regarding European integration and national sovereignty. Thankfully, most people stayed home and the vote null and void. Soon, Italy will go to the polls over a referendum centred on constitutional changes to the Senate. Of course, this will really be a vote of confidence of Matteo Renzi’s job performance and a loss in this vote will likely see him booted out of office.

When democratically elected governments hand the responsibility to govern over to the people, they are running away from their duty to serve the people’s best interests. Representatives of the people are entrusted with making tough choices for the common man and a failure to do so exposes the weakness of our democratic institutions. It is time for governments to step up and take responsibility for the difficult issues facing our societies. That is, after all, what we elect them for.