In 2016, leaders and elected officials, often called “elites” by their political opponents, have seemed to been out of touch with large groups in their own communities. The Brexit vote was an example of a large division in British society not being seriously recognized by its leaders. It resulted in the resignation of a Prime Minister and the eventual exit of the UK from the EU.
Explanations against the result of the referendum often take the same line of logic, explaining away valid and invalid issues that motivated the Leave camp to vote for Brexit. A continued push against the result of the referendum has created greater divisions as referendums themselves are now being seen on as bad policy, despite having many of the same structural issues as democratic elections themselves.
An agreement to end the longest war in Latin America was recently presented to the people of Colombia. President Santos asked the Colombians to vote on whether or not to accept an agreement to end the conflict between Colombia and the FARC rebel group. The peace agreement—four years in the making—sought to end hostilities between the FARC and Colombia, but was rejected by a slim margin of voters.
The movement against the current deal was partially motivated by former popular President Alvaro Uribe, a survivor of an assassination attempt himself, who was seen by many Colombians as having fought hard against the FARC and ELN during his term in office. After so many years in conflict and hundreds of thousands of causalities, the FARC is seen by many in Colombia as a narco-terrorist group that would have faced no real consequences or pay for its crimes committed over decades under the current peace agreement.
Having those same people within the democratic process in Colombia without any reconciliation process, or proper constituency in Colombian society to represent, should have been acknowledged during the peace process and negotiations. The result of the ‘No’ vote has made President Santos recognize that the process should have acknowledged the concerns of many Colombians that were not engaged with sufficiently in the peace process. Whether it will result in a more inclusive agreement for Colombia will be determined, but all parties will need to be engaged with in the process for it to have a chance at success.
To have ill will against a referendum or to excuse away the results of popular votes does little to re-enforce democratic values or to create a coming together of communities when the losing side attempts to de-legitimizing the side that won. As it would not be acceptable to give greater powers to groups that did not earn it by the popular will, elections and referendums are subject to checks and balances.
The legal structure of a society as well as the power of a parliament or legislature governs how democratic countries operate. Language that presumes that checks and balances do not exist after a vote or referendum loss directly alienates voters as it shows that their vote, their ideas, their community, and themselves do not count in determining their country’s future.