Story highlights

David Cameron gambled on settling a 40-year feud over EU membership

Germany has only limited use of referendums

The US does not hold national issues on ballots -- it only allows them in individual states

London CNN  — 

Governments often call referendums as a way out of a political dilemma. But as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos just found out, referendums don’t always produce the expected result and the ramifications can be momentous.

In Greece in 2015, the government, called and lost a referendum on EU and IMF-imposed austerity measures to ease the country’s debt crisis, and had to hold a second one having made its proposals more palatable to the electorate.

The former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, gambled on settling a 40-year feud within the Conservative Party over membership of the European Union with last June’s referendum. Instead he got Brexit and had to resign, dividing the country in the process.

British Prime Minister David Cameron resigns on the steps of 10 Downing Street.

“If a referendum can have such a polarizing influence in a place with long democratic traditions like the UK, as we saw with Brexit, imagine the impact in places like Iraq,” says Neophytos Loizides, Professor of International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent.

In Iraq’s 2005 referendum, Sunnis registered in droves to vote down the constitution and give regional autonomy to Shiites and Kurds. They lost and disappointment helped fuel the ethnic and religious fanaticism that has led to the rise of the pro-Sunni Islamic State.

An Iraqi Sunni woman casts her vote at a polling station during a referendum on a new constitution of Iraq in the western town of Fallujah, 15 October 2005.

Referendums can be so divisive and dangerous many countries don’t allow them on a national level.

“You can suppress political division in your party but at some time you have to confront the consequences,” said Professor Loizides from the University of Kent. What you gain as a political figure you lose later on.”

Question of division

Having studied the fall of direct democracy in ancient Greece, the founding fathers of the United States who drew up the constitution, decided to allow states to decide for themselves on how they hold referendums. The US does not hold national issues on ballots.

Germany has only limited use of referendums, to answer territorial and constitutional reforms. All others have been banned. The country has limited their usage citing manipulation by Adolf Hitler used a public vote made him both Chancellor and President of the country.

South Africans celebrating the referendum vote.

Loizides says one of the best ways for a government to win a referendum is to position the question so that it becomes more a vote of confidence in the leader to settle an issue rather than the issue itself. This was the case in South Africa in 1992 when FW De Klerk asked whites only to back him to negotiate an end to apartheid. He gained a resounding yes and the rest is history.

Referendums can help independence movements as they did in pre-colonial French Africa and in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, and they can quickly turn to “neverendums” such as in Scotland which narrowly voted against independence in 2014.

"Yes" and "No" voters protest on Rutherglen main street on September 10, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.

“In the case of the Scottish referendum, it is difficult to see how to put the genie back in the bottle. It was billed as a once-in-a-generation event.

“But if all you are in politics for is independence and constitutional change, then you will continue calling for it until you get it – even – as was the case in Scotland – you lost,” says Tom Harris is a former Scottish Labour MP, who lost his parliamentary seat in 2015 due to a surge in support for the Scottish Nationalist Party.