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The world hit peak referendum last Sunday when Hungarians voted 98 per cent against a European Union plan to temporarily resettle 1,300 refugees in their country.

That astonishing outcome was immediately negated by the fact that less than 50 per cent of eligible voters participated in the exercise, which made it invalid under Hungary's constitution. Still, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who led the No side, loudly claimed victory.

"The fact that in the referendum there was a 98-per-cent majority voting 'no' means that a new unity has been established in Hungary," Mr. Orban said.

It's preposterous nonsense, of course. But Mr. Orban is getting away with it because referendums have become a joke – empty vessels that can contain whatever meaning you want to pour into them. From the Brexit disaster to Hungary's farce, to last week's startling rejection of Colombia's historic peace agreement, these exercises in so-called "direct democracy" are glaring examples of all that is wrong with 21st-century populist politics.

Take the Hungarian vote. The question put to voters was, "Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?" The question was written by Mr. Orban's authoritarian government, and it was torqued. The EU wanted to temporarily resettle Syrian refugees in member countries to help ease the burden on countries being flooded by migrants. There was nothing permanent about it, and it was a one-off situation.

But Mr. Orban perverted the intention of this humanitarian effort in order to advance his right-wing anti-immigration agenda. He equated the refugees with terrorists. And he has since used the result of the referendum as justification to ban any large-scale resettlement of migrants in Hungary.

Is that what Hungarians voted for? No. But that's what they got.

Then there is Colombia. After 52 years of warfare, the government of the South American country reached a peace agreement with FARC guerrillas in August, bringing an end to generations of violence that killed 220,000 people. Peace was in the grasp of the Colombian people, but now it is jeopardized.

And why? Because 50.2 per cent of the population voted down the deal in a referendum that saw barely one in three eligible voters cast a vote. There were people in coastal regions, where support for the peace deal was highest, who were unable to vote because of a hurricane.

The referendum wasn't even necessary under the law, but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos had gambled that putting it to the people would add to its legitimacy. What he didn't count on was the referendum becoming a vote on a side issue – his popularity. The voters were swayed by the leader of the No side, who played on old enmities and fears. It was a short-sighted ploy. The Nobel Committee took a longer view, and on Friday it awarded Mr. Santos the Peace Prize for bringing about the historic agreement.

On to the United Kingdom's Brexit referendum in June, when Brits voted 51.9 per cent in favour of pulling their country out of the European Union. The campaign was highly negative, with many voters saying afterward they didn't feel properly informed and that they were more swayed by the personalities of the campaigners than by the issues, according to a report by the Electoral Reform Society, a pro-democracy group in the U.K.

The British pound has since fallen to its lowest levels in decades, and there are many who have said they would like to take back their vote to leave. But as Jacques Parizeau, the former leader of the Parti Québécois who brought Canada to the brink of separation in 1995, once famously said, the trick is to get people to vote for your side, and then they will be trapped like lobsters in a pot.

This is what too many referendums have become – politically motivated gambits designed to trick people into voting in favour of a thing they might well vote against on a different day. The outcomes depend not on a clear question but on unrelated gripes, popularity contests and, often, the emotions of disaffected voters. There is no science to the process – no general set of terms agreed on by all – to ensure the legitimacy of these referendums.

This doesn't mean referendums can never be legitimate, or needed. There are moments that cry out for them, such as the Trudeau government's plan to end Canada's first-past-the-post electoral system. There is a valid suspicion that moving to a new system would favour a centrist party like the Liberals. Ottawa should put forward a clear proposal, and then turn the referendum over to a neutral body to run, if it wants to be trusted on this issue.

But that's the exception that would prove the rule. Too often lately, referendums are exercises in fearmongering that favour the demagogue. They are anything but exercises in real democracy.