This article introduces a series in which eight analysts from around Europe look at how referendums are used or misused, and how they shape public debate.

Referendums are a touchy topic nowadays. Some praise them as a form of direct democracy, enabling the people to get around entrenched political oligarchies that tend to ignore or distort the popular will. Others are more suspicious. Referendums are seen by their critics as an opportunity for demagogues: a threat rather than a chance for democracy.

Instead of trying to resolve this dilemma, let us better reframe it. A referendum is not a universal solution, nor is it a universal threat. To be for or against referendums per se is to miss the point, as there is no single “referendum” in the real world. There are merely differently designed institutional arrangements in different countries.

Speaking of “design” points to the fact that, contrary to the prevailing view, referendums are not and cannot be a form of “direct democracy”. The popular will is always mediated in one way or another. This is as true of referendums as it is of elections. In an election, there are electoral laws that set out the rules regarding constituencies (their size, borders, and number of seats), ballot access requirements, how votes will translate into seats, and electoral thresholds. In a referendum, rules determine who may (or must) trigger the vote, what sort of questions are allowed, whether the result is binding, and the threshold for the vote’s validity (if any). A referendum result is thus a certain representation of the popular will rather than a direct expression thereof.

The popular will is always mediated in one way or another.

Regulations regarding referendums vary between different countries. The first major distinction is between countries where referendums are a permanent and frequent feature of political life and those where they happen on an ad hoc basis, often triggered by political leaders seeking to resolve a divisive issue (independence, EU membership, nuclear power) or simply to certify their own legitimacy. It is tempting to dub the former “referendums” and the latter “plebiscites”. This is not a good versus bad distinction. Both referendums and plebiscites may be legitimate and useful, if well designed and properly applied. One-off   plebiscites are probably riskier and more vulnerable to demagogic manipulation, and usually do not leave space for a second occasion to fix the damage.

Let’s look briefly at three different models. In Switzerland, a referendum may be triggered when a sufficient number of citizens sign a motion. There is parliamentary control, however, and the motion may be rejected if the proposed referendum might result in an outcome that contradicts the country’s international obligations, or if the wording amalgamates a general and a concrete issue into a single question. In Ireland, a referendum is required whenever the constitution is amended. The issue may be divisive or uncontroversial, but the rule is clear: you cannot change a single word in the constitution without a referendum. In Iceland, referendums are triggered if the president refuses to sign a parliamentary act into law. If the president and the Alþingi (Icelandic Parliament) disagree, the people are summoned to resolve the argument.

Different as these solutions may be, in all the above cases, referendums are a well-defined institution. Citizens know what their vote means and how it counts. They are not the ultimate source of power; rather, they provide a different balance of powers. Whether we are discussing the introduction or expansion of referendums as a permanent institution in a given country or the calling of a one-off plebiscite to resolve an issue, we are not dealing with the question of how to apply a range of universal principles. It is rather a matter of finding a proper arrangement for a given polity, taking into account its path dependence and history.

It helps to demystify the vision that “the general will” expressed in a referendum is somehow more authentic and more definitive than that expressed at a general election.

There are no universal guidelines, but there is one pragmatic rule of thumb: if you are going to hold referendums, it is better to hold them often. This will help citizens to learn how it all works, live with the results of their choices, and change their minds if needed. Accumulated experience will make wiser choices more probable. In any case, it helps to demystify the vision that “the general will” expressed in a referendum is somehow more authentic and more definitive than that expressed at a general election. Referendums, as much as parliamentary elections, may bring different results – welcome, unwelcome, or mixed. If we believe that the right to vote a bad government out of office is a part of democracy, it would be absurd to claim that a referendum result should be irrevocable.

This series explores the role of referendums throughout Europe. Beyond abstract notions of direct democracy, these cases illustrate the tangible impact of referendums: how they drive change, whether progressive or reactionary, structure public debate, and foster common understandings crucial for functioning democracies.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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