by Marc Farràs and Carolina Hidalgo

Nobody expected Brexit to win. And it did. Nobody expected the peace deal in Colombia to fail. And it did. 

Britons decided last June to quit the European Union after 54 years of membership. Since the referendum took place, Great Britain has changed dramatically, ranging from a new Prime Minister to the young generation’s perspective of the future. What seemed impossible for a vast majority of the population is going to be a reality by April 2019. Meanwhile, the actual consequences of the divorce between the UK and Brussels remain unknown.

Surprisingly, unpredictable referendum results are not limited to Britain. In Colombia, one of the most important referendums in their history was voted on last Sunday. After 50 years of fighting, and 4 years of formal talks, the Government reached a Peace Agreement with the largest rebel group of the country, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos committed himself to support the final agreement to be voted by the people. Polls suggested the deal would be approved easily, but the “NO” won by 50.2% of vote.

On June 23rd, more than 33,5 million British citizens voted on the referendum about whether the United Kingdom should remain in or leave the European Union. With a 72,21% turnout, 51,89% of the voters backed UKIP’s thesis that the UK would be more prosperous and recover essential world influence in a global context.

However, the general perception after the EU Referendum was that issues such as immigration, taxes and even intangible ones like national identity had decisively shaped the final result. As for Colombians, their concerns about giving former FARC members political power was the main motivation behind the rejection to the Peace deal.

After all, both Brexit and Colombia referendums have left public opinion, politicians and citizens in shock. Uncertainty reigns. The polls were not able to predict an accurate result, and now British and Colombian governments face the challenge to adapt quickly to a situation that was not only unexpected but also unwanted by them.

Tomen Nacho (Flickr)

Several questions are on the table: did the population vote specifically about the referendum issue? To what extent was it a protest vote? Why did most of the polls fail to provide a reliable prediction? And last, but not least, in a more general perspective, are contemporary democracies mature enough to assume the referendum procedure and its consequences?

Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, Lawrence LeDuc wrote in a 2015 paper that “a vote that is supposed to be about an important public issue ends up instead being about the popularity or unpopularity of a particular party or leader, the record of the government, or some set of issues or events that are not related to the subject of the referendum”

Javier Sajuria, lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University, thinks that the surveys and polls got it wrong in both referendums mainly because “prediction instruments based on surveys are very reliant on previous information about people’s behavior”. That is why, for the expert, “elections are more simple to predict than referendums, specially in countries where referendums are not a common thing”.

People in Colombia were aware of the importance of the referendum, but only 37% of the turnout went to vote. For Sajuria, in this case the polling organisations “don’t only need to figure out what people would vote for, but also who actually turn out to vote. A turnout of less than 40% makes it very difficult to figure out from a survey who is going to vote and who among those of are going to vote, are going to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

According to The New York Times political analyst Nate Cohn, the Brexit result is related to a social factor: “Well-educated, establishment-minded analysts may have a tendency to discount the willingness of populist, conservative and less educated voters to support candidates and policies that previously seemed unfathomable, even when the polls say it could really happen.”

Furthermore, data from Centre for Research on Direct show that over the last 23 years, 36 referendums have been held by governments or political institutions all over the world. In up to half of them official position lost, whereas those referendums called by national constitutions were backed four out of five times.

From the French referendum in 2005 on the European Constitution to the Hungarian vote on Syrian refugees that was held last weekend, the -hypothetically- minority and usually unpopular position has prevailed. While key issues like the role of the media during ‘YES versus NO’ campaigns require further discussion and analysis, one question prevails: are we ready to deal with these binary referendums?