The unbearable toxicity of referendum campaigns

The unbearable toxicity of referendum campaigns

In spring 2006, two years after the referendum on Kofi Annan’s plan for the reunification of Cyprus, I was in the Mediterranean island for an academic conference on the age-old conflict. During dinner, I found myself in the unenviable position of sitting between an activist who passionately supported the UN blueprint and one that wholeheartedly rejected it. Despite the fact that the Greek-Cypriot community overwhelmingly rejected the so-called “Annan Plan” in April 2004, it was the rejectionist on our table that still sounded quite bitter. He was pouring scorn on the sources of funding behind the “Yes” campaign, while covertly suggesting that support for the Annan Plan was somehow equal to treachery. Although the accusations were quite grave, the “Yes” activist remained surprisingly stoic throughout the night. It was only at the very end of the dinner that he mumbled he supported reunification not because he was a traitor or a lunatic but just because he thought that it would make his life better.

Last summer when the leftist-led administration of Alexis Tsipras called for a referendum on the approval of a financial assistance deal with Greece’s creditors, I recall reciting this incident many times. The reason was that it sheds light on two very important dimensions of referendum campaigns. First, it points to how the divisive political climate of such campaigns can shape politics for a number of years afterwards. Second, whichever side one supports in a referendum campaign, it is important to have in mind that the composition of the political community remains exactly the same even after the vote takes place. In other words, in a referendum, one side wins and the other loses. But it is the political community as a whole that has to work together in order to deal with the political ramifications of the result, whichever this might be. So, it is rather crucial that the debates and the clashes during a campaign – as passionate as they might be – do not create an unbridgeable cleavage between the two sides.

Having said that, I have to admit that, at that moment, I believed that the poisonous atmosphere with the nationalist undertones that dominated the referendum campaigns both in Cyprus and in Greece was largely a result of the particular historical trajectories and political cultures of those countries. Sadly, the EU referendum campaign in the UK has proved me wrong – to some extent at least. Even if it is proved that the tragic killing of Labour MP Jo Cox has nothing to do with the rising tensions in the EU referendum campaign, one has to look no further than the surreal “Battle of the Thames” between Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof, the latest poster of UKIP which has been accused for resembling Nazi propaganda and the debate on migration in order to wonder whether there is something endemic in referendum campaigns that leads to such toxic polarization.

Referendums, unlike parliamentary elections, are zero-sum games that pose binary dilemmas to the political community. People have to choose a side even if they do not particularly agree with all its members. For instance, in the UK’s EU referendum, Labour voters find themselves in the uncomfortable position to either pick the side led by Prime Minister David Cameron leads or the one that Farage supports. At the same time, referendums on such fundamental issues do not take place often. A decision in such a referendum settles the relevant political question for at least a generation. So, both sides feel that they desperately have to win it because the next chance might come after 30 or 40 years.

Does that mean that political communities should not opt for referendums in order to settle important questions? Far from that. I strongly believe that with the exception of questions that relate to fundamental human rights, every other political question could be a matter for a referendum. However, we should look at exploring methods that move us away from their binary character and could be able to give expression to more nuanced answers to the relevant questions, such as multiple-choice referendums. More importantly, it is critical to find and establish rules that could ensure that campaigns are not derailed in a way that harms the future and the cohesion of a given political community. But this is for the future. For the time being, people in the UK and overseas have to hold their breath waiting for the result of a referendum whose campaign has turned rather ugly.

* Nikos Skoutaris is a lecturer in EU law at the University of East Anglia, UK.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.