Direct Democracy in 2016: Digging our Own Graves

By Millie Radovic, 3rd year Anglo-Serbian student of BA International Relations at King’s College London and Chief Editor of International Relations Today.



The infamous concept of the referendum has for decades been hailed as the epitome of democracy. After all, isn’t the ability to vote directly on an important issue yourself (as opposed to trusting your representative in office will) the most liberating of political situations to be in? Referenda are certainly a powerful campaign element in general elections: last year David Cameron achieved a Conservative majority in the UK parliament by promising the 2016 EU referendum, and this year Malcolm Turnbull won an election on the promise of holding a same-sex marriage plebiscite next year in Australia. So, electorates across the globe care about getting a say on major issues in their societies.

Yet, if 2016 is to go by, the information age does not seem to have produced enough socially and economically conscious voters. Referenda were held across the globe, and upon further research it is disappointing to see that most of them did not have very ‘democratic’ and empowering outcomes. The Foreign Policy magazine has conducted a poll on what the ‘worst referendum ever’ was in the history of modern direct democracy. Here is a list of notable referendums of this year alone, in order of just how terrible they were:

9. Senegalese Referendum on Constitutional Reform – YES


Let’s start off with a good one: citizens of Senegal have used their right to vote to actually democratise their country. Despite only a 38% turnout, the voters have by a 68% majority elected to:

  • Allow independents to run for the presidential post
  • Reaffirm the limit to two presidential terms.
  • Recognise in the constitution the status of the opposition leader and grant him official benefits
  • Give more power to local councils

In terms of outcomes of referendums this year, Senegal’s has had objectively the best.

Dear Senegal, congratulations and can you send ‘the West’ some tips on how we can hack this whole direct vote thing?

8. Colombian referendum on the FARC peace deal – NO


Meanwhile, heavily criticised by some, the Colombians have voted ‘No’ to their government’s landmark deal with the
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—Ejército del Pueblo. “No peace without justice” has been the slogan of the ‘No’ campaign, as they rejected the peace deal by arguing that FARC members must be subjected to detention for the crimes they have committed since the creation of the organisation. Ironically enough, days after the vote the Colombian president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the deal. Talk about a bittersweet moment there. Nevertheless, despite the controversies around it the Colombians can be said to have had the 2nd best referendum this year – congratulations to their voters for using their democratic rights to pursue their ideals and well-being.

7. The Swiss Referendum on Compulsory Income  – NO

Meanwhile the Swiss voted ‘No’ to introducing compulsory basic incomes for all adults of £1755. This initiative backed by over 100,000 signatures reflects the high cost of living in Switzerland, but was not backed by a single political party. It’s interesting to note in this particular case that in Switzerland popular initiatives and referenda are the usual way of decision making there, unlike in other countries on this list. On one hand, this referendum is the first of its kind and so would by any economically left-leaning voter be considered a big step forward, yet its outright rejection also arguably reflects the overall political attitudes in the country and as such stands are number 7.

6. Liechtenstein Family Allowances Act Referendum – NO

Meanwhile, another tax haven, Liechtenstein voted overwhelmingly against the proposed Family Allowance Act. 82% of those voting elected to reject making paid 20 months maternity leave compulsory for companies. The referendum highlights a key issue of the 21st century, how responsible should corporations be for their workers? Well, according to this small nation, not so responsible as to grant arguably immeasurably important opportunities for their female workers to raise their children without a second income or significant financial savings.

5. Dutch Referendum on the Ukraine Economic Deal – NO



Over in the Netherlands, the Dutch campaigners against tightening relations with Ukraine achieved a particular feat as they managed to ‘win’ the referendum despite only a 32% turnout. Those that did turn up to vote did so overwhelmingly against the Ukraine-European Union Treaty on closer political and economic ties. Many newspapers wrote about how this reflects the growing sentiment of Euroscepticism within the Netherlands, but does the low turnout not just reflect growing disinterest instead? In any case, the right wing Eurosceptic populists managed once again to emerge as victors this year. Fingers crossed that it does not indicate what the right wing politician Geert Wilders called “the beginning of the end”.

4. Thailand Constitutional Referendum – YES


Over in South East Asia, just before the violence every traveller in the tourist haven would have heard about, the Thais voted to tighten military rule. With just over a 50% turnout, the Thais accepted a military-backed constitution that even stipulates that an unelected leader may take the post of prime minister ‘in the event of a political crisis’. Now here for once, we cannot simply blame ‘the people’ – though they were the ones to vote. No, here  a weak government manipulated by the military that held a referendum to bully people into voting to in many ways disenfranchise themselves should be blamed.

3. The United Kingdom’s EU Membership Referendum – YES


Only number 3? Yes, only number 3. Indeed there may not be a soul on the old continent that is not aware of what will mark the year of 2016 as the Brexit year. But, as catastrophic and sad it is that the United Kingdom has voted in to leave the European Union, no, it is not the worst thing to happen this year. It’s not even the worst thing to have happened in June. At least our tourists will benefit from our plummeting exchange rate (currently $1.25 to the pound).

2. Hungarian Referendum on EU Migrant Quotas – NO (invalid)


It might seem wrong to put the Hungarian vote on quotas ahead of Brexit by some as it was after all invalid. But the fact that as many as 95% of those that turned up to vote rejected an EU quota on how many refugees they ought to take is striking. It reflects the sheer amount of xenophobia dominant within this EU member state, and the current political mood. For the sake of context, the proposed EU quota would have added 1,924 refugees to a population of 9.8 million. The turnout, luckily was too low for this referendum to be deemed valid. If anything, the failure of the referendum to attract voters shows that there are safe checks within the system to prevent radical minorities of enacting major changes, and hence shows limits to what populism can do through direct democracy right now. In any case, this suggests two things: firstly, that obviously not enough Hungarian citizens currently considered the referendum important enough to vote in it (they’re ‘on the fence’ dare I say), and secondly, that those who did reflect a worrying growing anti-Brussels sentiment across the whole of Europe.

1. Tajikistan Constitutional Referendum – YES

Lastly, the Tajik vote to eliminate presidential term limits definitely makes it to number one this year. Indeed, this former Soviet republic has been an authoritarian state since its inception. But quite literally voting to not vote again (at least not until President Emomali Rahmon passes away or gives up his post) may only be likened to the Weimar Republic Reichstag’s vote in 1933 to effectively abolish itself and begin Hitler’s dictatorship as chancellor. Now the question begs, can we blame Russia for this too?


And so there you have it, 2016 in referenda – whilst opinions may differ in terms of how they rank comparatively, there is certainly consensus that they often paint a grim picture of the average voter that gets a say in politics through them. That grim picture is one of a disengaged, socially ‘unconscious’ or even self-contradictory ‘average Joe’. One that either contradicts himself by effectively voting against peace and voting to not vote again, or votes against helping those in need, or even worse does not vote at all. Now does this reflect the use and value of referenda? Arguably, no. What it does reflect is the state of our society as a whole, as it should. A society dominated by, despite the many incredibly positive forces of globalization, fundamental social, economic, and political inequality. Inequality which is leading to growing cleavages, where ‘every man for himself’ translates into exercising voting rights not on moral consciousness, but your own personal needs.  


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