Last month ‘Brexit’ voters in the UK momentously chose to depart from the economic and political union with their continental neighbours.
A survey by Ipsos Mori on the eve of the vote found that Briton’s questioned were wrong about almost everything about the EU and its relationship to the UK, which Professor Anand Menon deemed “troubling so close to the referendum”, but also, “not so surprising, given the lack of accurate information provided to the public, as well as the mistruths, exaggerations, and scaremongering that have taken place during this campaign.” He urged that “it’s now more imperative than ever that the public can be provided with as much factual information about the EU as possible before they cast their vote.”
However, post-vote polling shows that his advice fell on deaf ears. As the Brexit promises of Nigel Farage, of UKIP, and the Leave campaign quickly crumbled, 7% of Brexit voters have reported that they made the wrong choice – easily enough to swing the vote to Remain.
Colombia will soon to be making history with its own referendum on the final peace agreement between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. After months of ebbing away, support for the peace process has climbed again, with 58% and 74% in favour, as indicated by polls in June by Encuesta Nacional Paz y Reconciliación, and Polimetrica, respectively.
These polls, however, also indicate that between 30% and 40% of those who could vote in the plebiscite won’t, with 60.1% knowing “little about the details of the peace deal.” Alongside these statistics, we see that the popularity of most outspoken critic of the peace deal, two term president and senator of the Democratic Centre party Álvaro Uribe Vélez, remains higher than that of President Juan Manuel Santos. Uribe’s Civil Resistance campaign against a peace deal in Havana remains popular, at 39% according to pollsters Polimetrica. As in the EU referendum, this shows that a simple Yes or No decision of referendum voters is prone to influence by powerful and seductively simple narratives from a vocal opposition- even if the message is propped up by, or consists of, falsehoods.
Substitute ‘EU’ for ‘FARC’ and many of Farage’s and Uribe’s furious tweets become indistinguishable. Both describe these “other” groups as undemocratic, unconstitutional, and undermining the state’s legitimacy, and therefore something to be avoided as political players – with Uribe warning that the “legitimization of narco-terrorists” will lead to a “parallel-state” or “para-estado.”
Similarly, read ‘immigrant’, for ‘excombatant’, and Farage’s rhetoric accusing immigrants for “criminal gangs and crime waves” chimes with the “murderers” and “kidnappers” which Uribe warns a demobilising FARC would incorporate into society.
If the portrayal that these “others” are the greatest threat to a country and given disproportionate benefits, is taken at face value, then, quite simply, they will remain excluded from the social fabric. Farage, when questioned on national radio, stated that he would be concerned if Romanian immigrants moved into his neighbourhood. When asked about what made them distinct to, say, German immigrants, his answer echoed the thinly-veiled xenophobia of UKIP – “you know what the difference is.”
It should come as little surprise that post-referendum research by Opinium found the main reason for Brexit voters was a “fight against immigration.” In Colombia, although increasing, a recent Polimetrica poll showed that only 37% would want their son/daughter to be in a relationship with a FARC excombatant, and many being against giving a job, living next to, or accepting them as political actors.
The fact that most of this has been debunked as myths doesn’t stop the persistence and popularity of Farage and Uribe.
For a start, both invoke powerful, nationalist sentiments about what, or who, it means to be a British or Colombian citizen— and who is not part of that vision.
Farage’s claim that, “I am able, through the media, to deliver a good, simple, understandable message” is certainly true, even if the message, seductive in the simplicity of solution, is unworkable. And on this side of the Atlantic, the right-wing leader offers vague and largely unviable plans to “sabotage the peace” and militarily defeat a guerrilla group where half a century of state-led offences has failed. In the UK the rhetorical hallow promises to severely cut immigration to gain back jobs and welfare taken by immigrants made headlines. This shows that many British voters used their vote as a means of protest against other things – notably a pressure on public services and the quality and security of jobs, which come from both the government’s austerity measures, as well as more emblematic shifts of a globalised world- the effects of global recessions and the structural unemployment seen with the decline of traditional industries.
A March 2016 survey in Colombia cites the economic downturn as the most significant factor driving voter’s intentions. Similarly, in a recent Centro Democrático broadcast, many of public voting against peace argue that it is a protest against other things – notably, corruption, unemployment, and high taxation. What Uribe expertly does with the FARC mimics what Farage did with immigrants: relentlessly blame them for an array of quite unconnected problems. As Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebels stated, “If you say a lie over and over and over, people will start to believe it.”
There are signs, however, that UK voters are becoming aware of the many mistruths – albeit too late. Only days after the vote, the Leave campaigns post-referendum plan was exposed as being clearly inadequate and contradictory. As the newly sworn in Prime Minister Teresa May, quickly pointed out, Britain cannot have its cake and eat it (as in access to the EU’s single market and free movement of citizens). And Brexit voters expecting significant changes on immigration policy changes will be “disappointed”, presumably including Farage himself, who resigned as UKIPs leader in the days following the vote.
Brexit shows us that referendums are unpredictable, but also that reducing extremely complex matters to a simplistic Yes or No is liable to manipulation and exploitation by astute politicians. The fact that a majority of Colombians now support the peace process doesn’t necessarily mean they will vote for it and could fall for that narrative of fear in which the No-vote becomes the promised magic bullet to resolving many of the country’s political and economic woes.
The 1,2 million regretful voters in the UK could have changed the vote, and now it’s Colombia’s turn. Just keep in mind to vote for the question on the ballot, and to make that decision an informed one.
About the author: Sam Ling Gibson lectures on conflict resolution and diplomacy in Bogotá. He has been involved in various research projects addressing the challenges of a post-conflict Colombia.