The risky business of the referendum

"Power to the people!"

Oh, I see.

Well OK, not too much power then.

Across the world, political establishments are relearning an old lesson about the risky business of running a referendum.

A single-issue question, asked of angry disillusioned voters in an age of political rebellion, is always likely to produce some unexpected results.

Brexit in the UK was obviously one. The then Prime Minister David Cameron was convinced he had it in the bag - and look what happened to him.

And just last week the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked the people if they approved of peace. After years of negotiations with Farc rebels, and decades of war, how could they possibly say no?

Complex agreements are sometimes reduced to gut instincts. "Yes or no" can be a divisive question - often lacking the compromise and balance needed to forge a parliamentary majority.

Even winning a referendum on paper can be portrayed as a defeat, because it can underline divisions in society over which leaders would prefer to draw a veil.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban's call for Hungary to reject the EU's refugee quotas was approved by nearly everyone who voted. But a majority of Hungarians stayed at home, unwilling to act as foot soldiers in Mr Orban's cultural war with Brussels.

The referendum has always had a bit of a chequered history, as a device beloved of dictators from Napoleon to Hitler. It was a referendum in 1934 that merged the posts of chancellor and president of Germany, handing the Nazi fuehrer absolute power.

On the other hand, referendums have also been an important part of the quest for self-determination. Sometimes accompanied by violence, but also the cause of great rejoicing in many parts of the world - creating new countries from East Timor to Montenegro to South Sudan.

 

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