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Direct Democracy: Bad Idea or Worst Idea?

By Ryan Braun | October 12, 2016

Image: Flickr user Camilo Rueda López

Colombia has been victim to South America’s longest running civil war. Conflict between the Colombian government and FARC dates all the way back to 1966. Negotiations for a peace deal have occurred in Havana over the last four years, with what most thought was a final agreement in August. The recent rejection of this peace deal by Colombian voters by slim majority of only 0.22%, or about 54,000 people, continued the 2016 trend of national electorates pointlessly damaging their countries because of attempts at direct democracy by political elites.

The pro-Brexit vote that happened in June is the other key example of national referendums that have damaged an entire nation. While the Colombian government could and should have done more to educate voters about what the peace deal entailed, there was an interesting voting trend where those who lived in areas directly affected by conflict with FARC voted in favor of the deal while those safely distant voted against. That an incredibly tiny slice of the electorate, who likely are distant from the repercussions of the ongoing conflict, was able to derail a carefully negotiated process shows that putting a complex deal to vote where many will not understand is a huge mistake.

National referendums on complex issues are foolish, and political elites need to stop using them as a means to shield themselves from making tough decisions. In the UK we can see the level of economic damage, with the likely consequences being drawn out across years from leaving the EU, rejoining the WTO, and having to undergo a difficult process to negotiate a new relationship with other countries. Colombia faces continued conflict, and much economic investment that was predicated on the peace deal passing is now dead. Companies which were eyeing a newly more stable Colombia now have reason to pause. In both the UK and Colombia national referendums have caused unneeded harm. Both systems are representative democracies, and should trust those with the education and training instead of feelings and low educated voters.


Ryan Braun is a 2nd Year MIA Student at GPS. His focus is on International Economics and Latin America. This summer, Ryan worked at the Cuba Desk of the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, DC.


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