Referendums, democracy and reality shows

Two referendums have generated much buzz in the media as well as social media recently. The first was the referendum on the peace deal with a left-wing “revolutionary” group of yesteryears in Colombia and the other was a referendum on EU-mandated migrant quota in Hungary. The former met with rejection of the motion, and the latter with approval. To what extent did the results of these referendums reflect popular opinion in these countries?

Voters in Colombia have rejected a landmark peace deal with Farc rebels in a shock referendum result, with 50.2% voting against it.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban has declared victory in a referendum on mandatory EU migrant quotas……

Nearly 98% of those who took part supported the government’s call to reject the EU plan.

In the former case, the rejection is barely perceptible, while in the latter the approval seems to be overwhelming. However, there are caveats. In Colombia’s case:

Turnout was low with fewer than 38% of voters casting their votes.

The difference with 98.98% of the votes counted was less than 54,000 votes out of almost 13 million ballots.

In Hungary’s case:

But only 40.4% cast valid ballots – short of the required 50% threshold.

In Colombia’s case, the turnout may have been negatively influenced by weather – a hurricane that hit some parts of the country the day before forced evacuations in many places. In Hungary’s case the cause for low turnout is less clear. So, the question again arises: what do these results tell us? In Colombia they tell us that for the low percentage of people that did turn up to cast their votes, the amount of opposition to the so-called peace deal is nearly the same as that of support for it. But 62% is a lot that is left unaccounted for. Even half of those people voting might have changed the verdict dramatically. The same cannot perhaps be said of the Hungarian referendum, but again, 60% is a lot of people, and their votes might have changed the result, or reduced the margin, if nothing else.  Technically, however, the referendum results are invalid because less than half of the population eligible to vote turned up at the booths.

What are the reasons behind these results as well as the insufficient turnout? In Colombia, people who have been against the deal with FARC – a left-wing armed rebel group with which the political establishment had been engaged in a civil war for more than 50 years- have repeatedly reminded others of the enormity of the crimes the FARC has committed over the years: murder, kidnapping, extortion. They have argued that because of these crimes, justice for most of which still eludes the victims, the leniency shown towards the group in the deal -they have been allowed to become a legitimate political entity and contest elections- is outrageous. They are calling for justice to be served first. The other concern is the fact that socioeconomic inequalities are still very stark in Colombia, which means that the fight against such inequalities is likely to rage on in the form of rebellion from other groups. FARC might have flown the white flag, but the ideology that they have sown among people is unlikely to die out soon because of the reality that persists there. And that ideology is not unlikely to justify the same kind of crimes that they committed in the name of seeking justice. This prospect is something that some people seem to dread, that the peace deal is setting a wrong kind of precedent. Those who support the deal suggest that peace and reconciliation are of primary importance in the country, which is exhausted and ravaged by the half-century old civil unrest. They say that justice can be better served in an atmosphere of peace and by giving FARC a voice to raise their legitimate concerns openly in the public. There seems to be an even split between the two opinions. Neither side can claim clear victory. In Hungary, the sentiment against migrants has been pretty steady and sometimes extreme in nature. The Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has continuously stressed on the importance of maintaining a “Christian” identity of Europe, and objected that allowing Muslim immigrants in was a threat to an insulated and exalted European culture. His lobbying against immigration seems to have worked with Hungarians, at least for the proportion who voted, and this is the second referendum after the Brexit referendum in June, where the anti-immigration sentiment has succeeded. Last year, a Hungarian reporter was caught on video trying to trip immigrants, and the bizarre incident led to her being fired from her job. Hungary has also been accused of unilaterally setting up electrified and barbed wire fences to keep immigrants from streaming in through their borders. This kind of cynicism and hostility has obviously found resonance in most of the Hungarian masses, many of whom claim that their economy is so strained that any immigrant settling there will be the last straw. Nevertheless, a minority in Hungary has been calling for a humane response to the immigrant crisis from the government and the people, but their pleas have been overwhelmingly ignored.

So how exactly do referendums fare? According to Amanda Taub and Max Fisher of the New York Times:

Though voters upended their governments’ plans, eroded their own rights and ignited political crises, they all accomplished one thing: they demonstrated why many political scientists consider referendums messy and dangerous.

Though such votes are portrayed as popular governance in its purest form, studies have found that they often subvert democracy rather than serve it. They tend to be volatile, turning not just on the merits of the decision but also on unrelated political swings or even, as may have happened in Colombia, on the weather. Voters must make their decisions with relatively little information, forcing them to rely on political messaging — which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than those of voters.

In other words, referendums, more often than not, raise more questions than answers. It might be misleading to claim that a referendum reflects popular will. To what extent it does reflect popular will depends on what kind of reality the populace lives in. That makes it essentially quite complicated, as different people might have different reasons to choose one of two options. That might lead to confusion, and this is where the emotive strength of a campaign tends to sway popular opinion. Indeed, Taub and Fisher opine:

Voters face a problem in any referendum: They need to distill difficult policy choices down to a simple yes or no, and predict the outcome of decisions so complex that even experts might spend years struggling to understand them.

Voters typically solve this problem by finding what the political scientists Arthur Lupia and Mathew D. McCubbins have termed “short cuts.” The voters follow the guidance of trusted authority figures or fit the choice within a familiar narrative.

When a referendum is put forward by the government, people often vote in support if they like the leadership and vote in opposition if they dislike it, according to research by Lawrence LeDuc, a political scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.

The power of the narrative can be immense in absence of a comprehensive and considered analysis of situation. This has to do with how human psychology generally works. Our minds are constantly seeking ways to segue bits of reality into a seamless narrative that resonates with our Weltanschauung. This often results in distortion of our perception of reality if we choose not to do the difficult job of challenging the validity of the narrative by fact-checking and thinking critically. For example, in Britain there were multiple narratives that were doing the rounds during the Brexit referendum campaign. There were two factions of the Conservatives, one that favoured staying within the EU, led by the then Prime Minister David Cameron, and the other pitching for Brexit. It was the same with the Labour Party, with one faction each for Brexit and what came to be called “Bremain.” Outsiders or otherwise fringe right-wing groups like UKIP unequivocally advocated Brexit, citing concerns against large-scale immigration that they claimed was threatening the lives and livelihoods of the British people. Not one of those campaigns were honestly holding up the truth to the people, instead pushing their own agendas through half-truths or outright lies that their audiences liked to hear. There were many fence-sitters who didn’t quite realize what the hullabaloo was all about, and in absence of complete information, mostly chose the narrative that appealed the most to them. That led to Brexit. Whether or not that was the right thing is not the question here, the question is whether or not people made informed choices.

Though presented as putting power in the hands of the people, referendums are often intended to put a stamp of popular legitimacy on something leaders have already decided to do.

For example, David Cameron, until July the British prime minister, held the vote on whether to depart the European Union expecting that it would bolster his decision to stay in the bloc and would thus silence British politicians who wanted to leave.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary most likely devised his country’s referendum — on whether to reject European Union requirements for accepting refugees — to pre-empt inevitable objections in the bloc to his anti-migrant policies and to bolster his political standing at home. In both cases, it was about using the vote as an instrument to strengthen himself.

Referendums are not always a bad thing, though:

This stamp of popular legitimacy, though, can sometimes be a good thing, settling contentious national disputes that might otherwise lead to political turmoil or even to armed conflict. But it is precisely because the stakes are so high that the risks are, as well.

Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace deal in 1998 was followed by two referendums, one in Northern Ireland and one in the Republic of Ireland. That gave communities a sense of having been included, and marginalized anyone who wanted to keep fighting, making a relapse into conflict less likely.

This shows an important way referendums are different from regular elections: They succeed only when the nation perceives the vote as reflecting popular will. That works best if turnout is high and one side wins in a landslide, as happened in Northern Ireland’s 1998 vote.

The other example of an Irish referendum that led to positive results was the 2015 gay marriage legalization referendum , which came against centuries old discrimination against homosexuality among conservative Irish people led by the discredited Catholic Church.

However, referendums tend to go wrong more often than not, especially when the issue is more complex than a “yes” or “no” question. Indeed, as observed in the article:

Opinion polls are often misleading, because people do not form their opinions until immediately before the vote. Tellingly, they often abandon those views just as quickly.

Professor Marsh of Trinity College Dublin said he had found, in some cases, that “most people can’t remember any arguments for — this is about a week later — they can’t remember any arguments against, and they’re not really quite sure why they voted yes or no.”

“The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily ‘democratic’ is a perversion of the term,” Kenneth Rogoff, an economics professor at Harvard, wrote after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

“This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics,” he added.

What all this means is that referendums more often than not tend to defeat the point of democracy, by exposing people to sloganeering and strong agenda-driven political messaging, rather than engaging with the public in honest debate and discussion that focus on first adequately informing them about the issue under consideration, before leaving them to make their own choices. This kind of political hucksterism only succeeds in showing one agenda to be more legitimate than the other(s), rather than achieving the true democratic picture. This raises another question: Is democracy what we know it to be? The lament that politicians are more likely to represent themselves than their constituency is a pretty universal one. Is democracy really in the best interests of people in practice? Or are elections just referendums with more than two options? Not too infrequently candidates conjure up “issues” where there are none, and convince people through rhetorical prestidigitation that the issues they raise are real. They don’t use hard data, or cherry-pick from data when they have any. They play on popular perception of a certain situation and go about fear-mongering, sometimes managing to successfully sell their narrative to people. The way immigration is portrayed as an existential threat by various right-wing fanatics posing as political alternatives is a prime example. There are still others who focus on attacking their opponents and pointing out the flaws -real or imagined- in their policies, rather than providing a clear outline of what their own plans are. When challenged about their own plans, they remark that they have an ace up their sleeve that they don’t want to reveal. This works best if the anti-incumbency sentiment is strong. People who are just looking for change will often choose an alternative which looks and sounds good. And that becomes an emotional exercise. These are just a few ways in which politicians with an agenda can get what they want from a constituency that is misinformed or underinformed and whose thinking is replete with logical fallacies. This is the reason why democracy seems to work in some systems, while in some it leads to disaster because it is the wrong kind of democracy. The election of Rodrigo Duterte, a potty-mouthed and ignorant mass murderer as President of the Philippines shows how wrong democracy can go. This makes it very important for the media to remain objective and neutral, and endeavour to provide the public with facts and their full context, rather than a narrative. It’s also the responsibility of the people to seek to inform themselves and remain skeptical of the information they have received till they have verified it from multiple sources and read the full story. Most importantly, it’s crucial that better ways to educate people, as well as honest politicians, about political and social realities as well as debating techniques to make public discourse relevant and comprehensive be sought. It’s much easier said than done, and certainly more nuanced and complicated than simple suggestion, but that’s what the ideal end point should be, in my view. Only then will the citizenry be properly informed about issues prevalent in their society and only then will the level of political discourse rise, providing the public with actual choices, thus realizing the true goal of democracy.


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