A 99 per cent level of support in a referendum would normally cause scepticism. Yet the 99.74 per cent result in favour of Britain in the Falkland Islands sovereignty referendum this month was welcomed by the British Prime Minister David Cameron who said “the Falkland Islanders have spoken so clearly about their future”. You can say he had good reason – this is probably the most overwhelming result in any free and fair referendum.
Cynicism about overwhelming votes is reflected in Clement Attlee’s quote “the referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues”, which is borne out by the frequent recourse of totalitarian regimes to plebiscites. Many such votes have stretched credulity by recording support for the regime in question in excess of 99 per cent. Perhaps most notable is the Nazi use of referendums. Probably influenced by the free 1935 vote in the Saarland, in which the German Saarlanders voted overwhelmingly to rejoin Germany, a vote across the whole country was held in 1936 to endorse the remilitarisation of the Rhineland. With the two airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg touring up and down the country there was 100 per cent support. However, the ballot paper did not include an option to vote against, so this victory is reduced to only 98.80 per cent if you count as opponents the half a million brave people who cast blank ballots. It would be ironic to suggest that it was in the interests of fairness that the Nazis included the “No” option on the Austrian Anschluss referendum ballot paper in 1938. The font and the box was much smaller in case anyone was confused about how they should vote. Nevertheless, the “Yes” vote only received 99.60 per cent support, 12,000 people voted against and almost 6,000 spoilt their papers. Nor was this the only way in which dissent was shown – striker Matthias Sindelar famously scored a winning goal for Austria in the supposedly friendly Anschluss football match against the German national side. Unsurprisingly he was mysteriously found dead shortly afterwards.
The Middle East has seen a number of votes with over 99 per cent support. During the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini consolidated his power with a referendum on the adoption of his Islamic constitution, recording support of 99.31 per cent. Only 140,000 voters opposed the move, though, again, blank and spoilt papers, which amounted for another 150,000, were probably another way in which you could show dissent.
Not to be outdone Saddam Hussein in Iraq held a couple of referendums on his rule. In 1995 he made the mistake of letting the world see that not everyone supported his rule when just over 3,000 people voted against him, leaving him with only 99.89 per cent support. At the end of the seven-year term that this poll confirmed Saddam stood for re-election in 2002. As a display of his indefegatability in his show-down with America, during the run-up to the tragedy of the Iraq War, this time he got the support of all 11 million voters. At the time the BBC reported that amongst ballot boxes plastered with posters of Saddam Hussein voters sang patriotic songs and some even marked their approval in their own blood.
The votes on Saddam Hussein’s rule were not strictly speaking referendums but single-candidate presidential elections – an idea common across many totalitarian regimes. In Eastern Europe they reportedly followed the maxim, attributed to Stalin, that “those who cast the votes decide nothing, those who count the votes decide everything”. Rather than his mentor, perhaps Saddam was copying his fellow Baathists in Syria. Hafez al-Assad was elected with over 99 per cent support in five Presidential elections from 1971 to 1999. His son, Basheer, got the same level of support when he succeeded to the presidency in 2000. However, in the last presidential vote in 2007, before the outbreak of the current civil war, Basheer al-Assad’s support fell to 97.62 per cent. This was still impressive enough, though, for the Interior Minister to state “this great consensus shows the political maturity of Syria and the brilliance of our democracy”.
So the Falkland Islands would seem to stand as the only example of near national unanimity in a free and fair vote – apart from another example, and a bit closer to home. The 1973 Border Poll in Northern Ireland received 98.9 per cent support for remaining in the UK. A brainwave of the Heath government, following the abolition of the Stormont Parliament, the vote was conducted in a proper way. However, the circumstances of the Troubles and a widespread boycott called by nationalist parties led to turnout of only 58.66 per cent and no resolution until the Good Friday Agreement over a quarter of a century later (which was endorsed in a referendum with 71.1 per cent support and a turnout of over 80 per cent). Few would venture to say that the Border Poll accurately reflected the views of the Northern Irish people. The Falkland Islanders are, therefore, surely unique?