In 2015, the common theme of world elections was how stroppy the voters were governments of all political persuasions were being turfed out or losing support.

This year, voters have been just as ornery, but there haven’t been as many elections to show it. Australia and the US both went to the polls, but they were the only G20 countries that did.

Instead, 2016 was the year of the referendum. And sure enough, referendum results around the world showed major discontent with the way things are going. Here, then (in chronological order), are my top 10 referenda of the year.

Bolivia, February 21

Creeping authoritarianism in Latin America remained a topic of concern this year (Venezuela and Nicaragua were the obvious cases), but it received a check in Bolivia when president Evo Morales sought approval for constitutional changes that would have allowed him to run for a fourth term of office. Despite his previous landslide victories, Bolivians narrowly (51.3%) said no to the idea, so come 2019 they will be choosing a new president.

New Zealand, March 24

At the end of last year, New Zealand had held a nationwide postal ballot to choose a preferred alternative to design for its national flag. The winner — a silver fern in black and white, on a blue background with red stars — was then pitted this year against the existing flag. The vote was decisive against change: only 43.3% backed the new flag, with a healthy turnout of 67.8%. Since there’s no sign of Australia making a change either, confusion between the two will no doubt continue.

Netherlands, April 6

The first referendum in the European Union set the pattern for the year. In 2014, following the revolution in Ukraine, that country had signed an association agreement with the EU. But last year, after the Dutch parliament voted to ratify the agreement, Eurosceptics succeeded in petitioning for a referendum — not out of any particular concern with Ukraine, but as a means to oppose further European integration. (And incidentally furthering the foreign policy interests of Russia, another common theme this year.) Only 32.3% voted, but of those 61.5% voted to reject the deal; the Dutch government is now trying to secure some modifications that will appease the critics.

United Kingdom, June 26

This was the big one for the year. Prime minister David Cameron had promised, prior to last year’s election, that in his new term he would secure a new deal with the EU and then hold a referendum on continued membership. There wasn’t much in the new agreement that he reached, but it really didn’t matter anyway: this was an opportunity for the disaffected in Britain, and especially Cameron’s enemies in the Tory party, to express their opposition to the European project, to immigration, and to modernity in general . The vote was close, but 51.9% went for “leave”; Cameron resigned, and his successors were left to try to recover something from the mess.

Abkhazia, July 10

Abkhazia, a Russian protectorate in the Caucuses claimed by Georgia, doesn’t get a lot of media coverage. But this year it registered a remarkable record. The opposition petitioned for a referendum to try to force early elections; the government accepted the petition but then boycotted the referendum, and the opposition, anticipating failure, decided to boycott as well. So turnout reached just 1.2%, or 1628 people, surely a world record, with the “no” side 11 votes ahead.

Thailand, August 7

Unlike most of the year’s referenda, the Thai military government got what it wanted with approval of its new constitution. But it was an underwhelming victory, with 61.4% voting “yes” and a turnout under 60% — hardly very convincing when the “no” campaign was effectively illegal. The green light was therefore given for a transition to semi-democracy, but further uncertainty came later in the year with the death of King Bhumibol and fears (or perhaps hopes) that his heir may not see eye to eye with the military.

Hungary, October 2

Another opportunity for European voters to show hostility to immigrants, but this one didn’t turn out quite as planned. Hungary’s right-wing government organised the vote to demonstrate opposition to the EU’s plan for quotas for the acceptance of Middle Eastern refugees. As expected, a huge majority voted against the EU proposals, but the opposition’s call for a boycott succeeded in keeping the turnout down to 44%, well below the 50% required for validity — a clear rebuke to authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

Colombia, October 2

Even more than Brexit, this was probably the shock result of the year. Colombia’s government, over years of negotiation, had painstakingly crafted a peace deal with the country’s FARC guerrillas, but when put to a nationwide vote it was rejected by the tiny margin of 50.2%. (Quite contrary to the predictions of the opinion polls, which have been having another bad year.) But no one interpreted that as a decision to return to war; instead, the parties went back to talking and produced a new agreement that would meet some of the concerns. Wisely, perhaps, it was just ratified by congress and not put to a new referendum.

California, etc, November 8

The United States went to the polls and surprisingly elected Donald Trump as president. But in case further evidence was required that that did not represent an unstoppable swing to the right, referendum results the same day were generally positive for liberal causes. Most notably, voters in California, Massachusetts and Nevada approved the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use — a trend that is starting to look unstoppable. California, both the biggest state and the heartland of cultivation for the drug, voted “yes” with 56.4%.

Italy, December 4

And to end the year, characteristically, on a note of crisis in Europe, Italian voters turned down Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s plan for constitutional reform. The result was not unexpected; in addition to streamlining some of the country’s sclerotic institutions, the changes would have removed some potential safeguards against authoritarianism. But the “no” vote of 59.1% was larger than predicted, and was seen as a triumph for populism and Euro-scepticism. Renzi resigned and his government was reconstructed under new leadership, but its survival prospects are uncertain.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey