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.



  1. This is not necessary a disagreement with the premise referendums relinquish the duty of government representatives, but there are many complexities to the peace agreement that haven’t been fully explained by most international media outlets. As a Colombian citizen myself who voted NO this past weekend, maybe I can provide my two cents.

    When you say “instead, opponents of the peace deal focused on the past,” I agree but disagree. I don’t think there’s any easy way you can divorce the two. At first glance, of course it’s about the past. A central component of the peace deal is how we as Colombians are going to bring perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice. What concessions are we willing to make? What’s too harsh? What’s too easy? When people say it’s about the past, they imply (not saying you, necessarily) this is all about some huge conflict that happened generations ago.

    What comes to mind is the case in Germany that happened a couple of years back where the government decided to jail a 90-something year old man for his involvement in the Holocaust. In contrast to that, this armed conflict has been ongoing for decades; it’s the very men and women who are trying to negotiate the peace agreement who are responsible for these atrocities. To me, as a Colombian who lives through it, is like Hitler himself negotiating a peace deal that involved clauses of impunity for Hitler and his soldiers. So is it about the past? Yes but no.

    “Fear and anger won.” This isn’t about fear nor anger. Rather, in my view, the choice was “peace at any price” versus “there is a price we will not pay.” The rejection of the peace agreement was NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, a repudiation of the concept of peace. Ex-President Andres Pastrana, in fact, the very man who was the architect of the first round of peace negotiations with the FARC in the late 90s, was one of the leaders of the NO campaign.

    As he recognized it, this deal would give too many concessions while the FARC got off with a slap on the wrist, political guarantees, and impunity. For me, that’s not a price worth paying. Real peace cannot be achieved without real justice, and to negotiate in this form is to undermine our own legal institutions.

    That’s why I think the comparisons between Colombia’s referendum on the peace agreement and Britain’s Brexit vote are unfair. One dealt with a purely political question, whereas the other dealt with the safety and livelihood of millions of people against a recognized terrorist organization.

    In similar fashion, its comparison to the Brexit vote feeds into that false dichotomy of peace vs. war. Brexit’s objective was simple: to stay in the EU or remain in the EU. Colombia’s was about the current state of the peace agreement; by voting no, it allows the Colombian government to go back to the negotiating table to create a new peace agreement that meets the demands of the people the government represents. The comparison to Brexit would be fair if voting “leave” meant the UK had a chance to renegotiate its terms with the EU – sure. But that’s not the case.

  2. “The Brexit referendum was a way of pacifying the Conservative Party. ”

    Could not disagree more. Cameron pushed for the Europe Referendum because he reckoned he could win. He might have achieved that desire, if he had gone to Europe with a firm negotiating stance, especially on the one topic which was toxic to a vast majority of British voters. If he had stated, categorically, in his so-called negotiations, that he would not be prepared to accept anything less than a complete block on the ‘freedom of movement’: and if the other 27 Members didn’t like it, he would himself have pushed to Leave, he might have done some good. But what we got was a weak-kneed, lily-livered idea to sanction EU residents’ benefits, and that only on Saturdays, High Holidays, and just after West Ham wins at home.

    He was laughed out of the park by the true British voter, who has always disliked the very idea of a Europe made rampant by a set of Treaties and decrees which no-one had ever asked them if they were liked, or wanted; who decided to give the two-fingered salute towards Europe in true British fashion: and upset every other commentator in the world.