Friday, March 5News For London

Direct democracy as a gamble: Colombia’s President admits he shouldn’t have held a referendum to vote on the Peace Deal.

“I learnt the lesson” said Juan Manuel Santos, when he reflected on the plebiscite in which the first peace agreement between the Government and FARC was rejected two months ago.

Mr. Santos, who is visiting Sweden after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last Saturday, admitted today in the Swedish Parliament that he shouldn’t have called a Referendum. As it happened to David Cameron last June with the Brexit Referendum, Colombia’s President said that he held it because it was a promise, then for him, it was the “right” thing to do.

“I learnt the lesson. You shouldn’t hold a Referendum to vote on something you don’t need to.” Colombia’s President said at a seminar in Stockholm with members of the Parliament’s Commission of Foreign Affairs.

David Cameron. Photo by Lee Davy (flickr).
David Cameron. Photo by Lee Davy (flickr).

The reflection recalls the shocking victory of the “Leave” vote over the British Government campaign in the UK Referendum this year. Mr. Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum ended up with a defeat not only for the Government, but also for his political career.

Javier Sajuria, lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University, thinks that “whenever you do a direct democracy exercise – plebiscite or referendum – you always make a gamble.” He states that the risk of holding referendums is always present, and the only places where they are not a gamble “are where you have them institutionalized like in Switzerland, California or maybe some places in Canada. Otherwise there is always a gamble.”

For the expert, the issue is not a matter of lack of leadership, or not being able to represent people’s views. “It’s a gamble, and politicians make gambles when they think the risk is outweighed by the benefits.”

Mr. Santos recognized he decided to ask for the people’s vote, even if it wasn’t his duty, but he also admitted he had been “incompetent” in explaining the first deal, which led to misinformation campaigns. He said he was shocked by the rejection of the peace deal, as well as all the people campaigning for the “NO” vote.

Juan Manuel Santos. Photo by Romèrio Cunha (Wikimedia Commons).
Juan Manuel Santos. Photo by Romèrio Cunha (Wikimedia Commons).

“In the case of Santos,” thinks Javier Sajuria, “he clearly thought at the beginning when he negotiated the Referendum, that it was the safest option. Cases of referendums that have gone wrong for governments are Pinochet in the 80s in Chile, the Brexit and several others like the Scottish referendum, which was pushed by the Scottish Government. So, as usual this is not a matter of a lack of presence of political leadership, it’s more about how they use political tools to achieve certain goals.”

However, Mr. Santos thinks that after all, the victory of the “NO” vote in the Referendum was also a “disguised blessing”, because it allowed the Government to open a dialogue with the opposition to work on a “better” agreement. Also, he said the shocking result brought the attention of all Colombian people to the issue, especially young people.

In his speech after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, the President described the award as a “gift from heaven” and praised Colombia and the victims for their forgiveness.