The Star (Kenya) - - News -

nce again, a ref­er­en­dum has turned a coun­try up­side down. In June, Bri­tish vot­ers de­cided to take their coun­try out of the Euro­pean Union; now, a nar­row ma­jor­ity of Colom­bians have re­jected a peace agree­ment with the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia. Colom­bians have taken a leap in the dark – and per­haps a leap back into the vi­o­lent abyss of never-end­ing war. Pop­ulists ev­ery­where are no doubt cel­e­brat­ing the out­come as an­other clear re­buke to self-in­ter­ested elites who have “rigged” their gov­ern­ments against the peo­ple. And the peo­ple, they say, should have a di­rect voice in the im­por­tant de­ci­sions af­fect­ing their lives – ap­par­ently even de­ci­sions about war and peace.

But if there re­ally is a “democ­racy deficit,” as pop­ulists claim, the in­creased use of ref­er­en­dums is no cure for it. On the con­trary, ref­er­en­dums tend to make mat­ters far worse, and can un­der­mine democ­racy it­self. It’s an old story: Napoleon III, for ex­am­ple, used such a vote to re­con­sti­tute his elected pres­i­dency into the im­pe­rial ti­tle his un­cle, Napoleon Bon­a­parte, had held. Af­ter the rise of fas­cism and dur­ing the Cold War, the world’s democ­ra­cies seemed to recog­nise that ref­er­en­dums and plebiscites are the hand­maid­ens of au­to­crats seek­ing to con­cen­trate power. Adolf Hitler used plebiscites in the Sude­ten­land and Aus­tria to con­sol­i­date the Third Re­ich. And, af­ter Hitler, Joseph Stalin used ref­er­en­dums to in­cor­po­rate Eastern Europe into the Soviet bloc.

More re­cently, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin or­gan­ised a snap ref­er­en­dum in Crimea that sup­pos­edly jus­ti­fied his an­nex­a­tion of the ter­ri­tory. In the tra­di­tion of Napoleon III, Hitler, and Stalin, he used di­rect democ­racy to pur­sue dic­ta­to­rial ends. To be sure, not all re­cent ref­er­en­dums have been in­stru­ments of dic­ta­to­rial power.

But men­dac­ity and de­cep­tion wor­thy of the dic­ta­tors of the 1930s was cer­tainly on dis­play in the United King­dom’s “Leave” cam­paign, and in the op­po­si­tion to a Dutch ref­er­en­dum in April to ap­prove an EU-Ukraine free-trade and as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ment. In the UK, Boris Johnson cyn­i­cally helped lead the Leave cam­paign with an eye to­ward un­seat­ing, and po­ten­tially re­plac­ing, Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron. But, when Cameron re­signed in July, Johnson’s fel­low Brex­i­teers be­trayed him, so he had to set­tle for be­com­ing For­eign Sec­re­tary in Theresa May’s new gov­ern­ment.

In the Dutch case, Euroskep­tics, seek­ing to drive a wedge be­tween the Nether­lands and the EU, ex­ploited the 2014 tragedy of Malaysia Air­lines Flight 370, which de­parted from Am­s­ter­dam and was shot down over Ukraine by Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists, leav­ing a deep wound in the Dutch pub­lic psy­che. The Bri­tish, Dutch, and Colom­bian ref­er­en­dums all re­quired that com­plex is­sues be rad­i­cally sim­pli­fied, which played to pop­ulist lead­ers’ strengths. In the Nether­lands, vot­ers were asked to ap­prove or re­ject an agree­ment that runs to more than 2,000 pages, which surely no more than a hand­ful of vot­ers have ac­tu­ally read. In­stead, most vot­ers re­lied on pop­ulist leader Geert Wilders’ glib talk­ing points, which pro­vided a less-than-can­did as­sess­ment of the is­sue. Sim­i­larly, the Brexit ref­er­en­dum posed a ques­tion with so many ram­i­fi­ca­tions that no voter could pos­si­bly have con­sid­ered them all. And in the Colom­bian plebiscite, vot­ers would have needed a deep un­der­stand­ing of far­away South Africa’s truth-and-rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process, and post-apartheid his­tory, to as­sess the peace agree­ment prop­erly.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment was cre­ated to man­age th­ese types of com­plex is­sues. We vote for rep­re­sen­ta­tives – ei­ther in­di­vid­u­ally or as part of a po­lit­i­cal party with a rel­a­tively pre­dictable plat­form – to ad­vo­cate pub­lic poli­cies that we sup­port. But, as Ed­mund Burke fa­mously pointed out, “Your rep­re­sen­ta­tive owes you, not his in­dus­try only, but his judg­ment, and he be­trays, in­stead of serv­ing you, if he sac­ri­fices it to your opin­ion.”

The pop­ulist cam­paigns in the ma­jor ref­er­en­dums this year have dif­fered in im­por­tant re­spects. For ex­am­ple, Colom­bian op­po­nents of the peace deal ap­pealed to uni­ver­sal norms of jus­tice for war crimes com­mit­ted by the mil­i­tary and the FARC, not to na­tional par­tic­u­lar­ism, as in the UK and the Nether­lands. Nonethe­less, they have all been mo­ti­vated by a de­sire to scut­tle gov­ern­ments and in­sti­tu­tions that they op­pose. And they have all been will­ing to fol­low the tra­di­tion of dic­ta­tors, and to re­sort to smears, dis­tor­tions, and fan­tas­ti­cal claims.

In the real world, messy com­pro­mises are a fact of demo­cratic life; and the only thing messier than a ne­go­ti­ated peace is war it­self. As long as com­pro­mises do not vi­o­late in­di­vid­ual rights, cit­i­zens in democ­ra­cies ac­cept them as nec­es­sary for the sake of func­tion­ing gov­er­nance. When we re­duce a peace agree­ment, a trade treaty, or EU mem­ber­ship to a sin­gle sen­tence or sound bite, gen­uine demo­cratic de­bate gives way to the po­lit­i­cal noise of opt-outs, logrolling, and side deals. This is ar­guably a par­tic­u­larly ill-ad­vised time to hold ref­er­en­dums, be­cause demo­cratic malaise has taken hold in many coun­tries since the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis. In the EU, main­stream politi­cians must ac­cept some re­spon­si­bil­ity for ex­pe­di­ently blam­ing “Brus­sels” for ev­ery prob­lem, or for fudg­ing the truth about what EU mem­ber­ship or as­so­ci­a­tion agree­ments with neigh­bours ac­tu­ally mean.


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