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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2555

“Et Tu Referendum?”

By Shakthi De Silva

Referendums are commonly considered an expression of democratic will. The Cambridge English Dictionary identifies it as “a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question”. Referendums are not regularly held in a country or region and carry great political significance because it addresses issues of national concern.

2016 and 2017 witnessed some of the most historic referendums of our time. More often than not the result was contrary to official predictions. Despite overwhelming negativities associated with a vote against the existing status quo, most of these referendums followed this path. Does a growing political support for referendums serve as a rendition of the true political expression it promises? And more importantly is calling for a referendum an efficient way for the political authority of a country to measure the public attitude? Do voters critically weigh the cost and benefits of following a particular course of action? Must politicians in the 21st century devote more consideration into grasping the likelihood of a vote going against their favor? This essay argues that in the present context, referendums are more cause for discomfort and uncertainty; often ending with a self-inflicted ‘knife in the chest’ for most political echelons.

Arguably the most striking referendum took place in the United Kingdom (U.K) in 2016. Citizens and analysts from Australia to Hawaii mooted the impact of the BREXIT vote on U.K and the European Union (E.U). The camp supporting the BREXIT (Leave Camp) won by 51.9% to 48.1%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting. Chancellor Osborne buttressed by David Cameron fervently argued that an economic crisis would follow a ‘yes’ for BREXIT. High level advocacy from the former U.S president Obama and Christine Lagarde (the Director of the International Monetary Fund) was intended to tempt the public to move away from the Leave camp. Predictions by veteran pollsters and think tanks were equally shocked at the results. A research paper by Harold Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley, in an effort to explain the reasons behind a BREXIT vote, described how “high status individuals are likely to support EU integration, whereas lower status people are likely to oppose it”. Regardless of the diverse factors producing the BREXIT result, the referendum outcome itself, led to the resignation of Cameron and the start of a difficult negotiation process with the E.U to leave the grouping.

2016 also saw voters in Colombia reject a landmark peace deal with the FARC rebel group. In a shock referendum result, 50.2% voted against the peace deal citing various reasons. Despite support from the Pope, and the then U.N Secretary General the agreement jointly signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Jimenez failed to gain popular support. Unlike Cameron, Santos did not resign and instead worked around the clock to bring about a revised peace deal which he smartly decided not to put before the general public. Here too, predictions of the referendum turned foul but a potential political crisis was eschewed.

Following a failed coup to oust him from power, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an chose to solidify his authority by calling forth a referendum on an amendment package to the existing constitution in 2017. Brookings viewed this amendment package as creating a “populist, one-man system that jeopardizes legislative and judicial independence and consolidates them in the office of the president.” 51% of the voters in the referendum saw it fit to give sweeping new powers to the executive. Thus the package was accepted by the Turkish public. Once more some pundits were left aghast at this new development given the expectation that Turkish citizens would favor greater accountability and less bestowing of power on the executive. Whilst Erdo?an profited from the moment it remains to be seen how long he can hold onto power in this fashion.

Fast-forward to today and one sees even more referendums which challenge the existing status quo. 90% of the 2.26 million Catalans of Spain voted in favor of independence from Spain. Despite attempts by the Spanish police to disrupt the proceedings Catalans chose to sit out the night in front of polling stations to push back the Spanish police. Emphatic after the vote, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared: "We have won the right to an independent state.” While this referendum was non-binding and vehemently against the wishes of Madrid; it demonstrated the tensions that exist in democratic states which have granted significant freedom to regions within a country.

Following a similar process just a few days ago, Iraqi Kurdistan opted for independence. Despite being labeled as “unconstitutional” by the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, 92% of voters chose independence. While the referendum may give Iraqi Kurdistan some leeway in initiating “talks to secede from Iraq, Baghdad has already ruled out such talks.” Thus, center periphery relations in the case of Spain-Catalonia and Iraq-Iraqi Kurdistan showcase the growing prospects of defragmentation despite the “free expression of democracy” so championed through referendums.

What can we make of this? Are referendums the best policy option for states? In an article to the Colombo Telegraph in 2016 I made the case that referendums are imbued with uncertainty and should be used with the utmost of caution. Mateo Renzi’s abrupt end of tenure is a case in point. Are referendums the best policy option to gauge the public perception? Can referendums be used as an effective barometer? Based on the tumultuous period of 2016 and 2017 it can be reasoned that this may not be the case. In the context where Sri Lanka hopes to pursue a referendum for its new constitution in 2017 or 2018, it is apt to ask: Is a referendum the best possible option for a ruling government in the 21st century?

Shakthi De Silva is an undergraduate student at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, specializing in International Relations with minors in Economics and Sociology. He is a former Research Intern at the Bandaranaike Center for International Studies. His area of interest is U.S foreign policy, foreign policy analysis and geopolitics.

- Asian Tribune -

“Et Tu Referendum?”
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