The problem with referendums
PRESIDENT JUAN Manuel Santos was not obliged to hold a referendum to ratify the deal to end 60 years of war between the Colombian government and FARC. It was held because both Santos and the FARC leaders thought a referendum victory would make it harder for any later government to break the deal – but they lost the referendum.
In Sunday’s referendum, slightly more than a third of qualified Colombian voters (37 per cent) actually bothered to cast a ballot – and the ‘no’ side won by a sliver-thin majority of 50.2 per cent. The ‘yes’ side, however, got large majorities in the more rural parts of the country, which had been devastated by the long war.
In the war zones, most people just wanted the killing to stop, but in the safer urban areas, people had the luxury of wondering whether it was morally justifiable to grant an amnesty to rebels who had killed so many people. And as in most referendums, lots of people seized the chance to make a protest vote against the government in general. So the peace deal was lost.
There is no Plan B. “If the public says ‘no’, the process stops and there will be no result,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. “The consequence of ‘no’ winning is war,” said former President Cesar Gaviria, who led the campaign for the ‘yes’ vote.
That may be too pessimistic, for FARC’s leaders really do want to end the war. “If ‘no’ wins, it wouldn’t mean that the process has to fall apart,” guerrilla negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in late June. “We aren’t required by law to decide to continue such a painful war.”
But without the legal protection of the peace deal, many of FARC’s 5,000 fighters will be reluctant to lay down their weapons and come out of the jungle. Why did Santos take the risk of a referendum?
Neither the Colombian constitution nor any other country’s says that peace agreements ending civil wars must be ratified by a referendum. (National constitutions do not even consider the possibility of a civil war.) And when civil wars do end, most governments recognise that emotions are still too raw to put necessary concessions like an amnesty for all the combatants to a popular vote.
At the end of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, Nelson Mandela won the country’s first one-person-one-vote election, but he did not hold a referendum asking the voters to approve the agreement he had negotiated with the white minority regime. Instead, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where those who had committed atrocities were asked to admit their crimes but were not punished.
There was no referendum held to ratify the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that effectively ended the 30year civil war in Northern Ireland. Nobody asked the Lebanese people to approve the diplomatic Taif Agreement of 1989 that led to an end of the 15-year civil war there, and it was the Lebanese Parliament, not a referendum, that passed the amnesty law.
A referendum is a very blunt instrument even when the question at issue is less tangled and emotional than a civil war. In the recent referendum on British membership in the European Union, for example, most of the 51.9 per cent who voted to leave were really voting against mass immigration (half of which does not come from the EU) and against the impact of globalisation on their living standards.
Then there was the Greek referendum of July last year when Prime Minister Tsipras asked the public if it accepted the tough conditions of an EU offer to bail Greece out of a debt crisis once more. He wanted a ‘no’ and he got it (61 per cent ‘no’, 39 per cent ‘yes’) – but 10 days later, he ignored the result and agreed to an even harsher offer from the EU. And got away with it.
Referendums are usually ‘advisory’ and do not have the force of law. They rarely have an outcome that could not be achieved by a simple vote in an elected parliament at a hundredth of the cost. And a democratically elected Parliament does a much better job of asking and answering the right question.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.