Electoral Processes


Do citizens have the opportunity to take binding political decisions when they want to do so?

Citizens have the effective opportunity to actively propose and take binding decisions on issues of importance to them through popular initiatives and referendums. The set of eligible issues is extensive, and includes national, regional, and local issues.
Switzerland uses forms of direct democracy to a larger extent than does any other mature democracy. Direct-democratic practices are intensively employed on all levels, from the local to the national. On the local and state (cantonal) levels, rules and practices vary considerably by region. This mode of decision-making has many advantages, particularly if it is institutionally and culturally embedded in such a way as to hinder the development of a tyranny of the majority and populist mobilization. In particular, the system is connected with a high level of satisfaction, creating strong citizen identification with the political system and offering many incentives for politicians to behave in a consensual way.

However, along with these laudable characteristics, there are some qualifications and criticisms that should not be overlooked:

• Citizens in a direct democracy are not necessarily better informed or politically more interested than those of representative democracies at the same level of economic and social development. Switzerland provides little evidence that direct democracy educates citizens to be better democrats. However, research indicates that voters are willing and able to search and process information as well as open to substantial arguments beyond mere heuristics when making their decision.

• About 95% of all political decisions at the federal level are taken in parliament without subsequent direct-democratic decision-making. However, the most important and controversial issues are dealt with in public votes.

• Participation rates in direct-democratic votes are usually very low (typically between 40% and 50%) and socially biased. Well-to-do citizens participate at disproportionate levels.

• Voting is frequently driven by cue-taking, rather than by well-informed individual decision-making. This is not to say that citizens are simply victims of slogans or propaganda; in most cases they distinguish between information of high and low reliability during campaigns. However, recent popular votes indicate severe problems with regard to public knowledge and access to information. For example, according to VOTO 2017, the vote on the tax reform in 2017 was strongly influenced by a “when in doubt vote no” heuristic: citizens who felt uncertain and insufficiently informed voted no. Likewise, the initiative to exit nuclear power was rejected in November 2016 because two-thirds of voters assumed that within the following two years 50% of electricity production would have to be substituted by alternative sources. Although a majority of citizens support exiting nuclear energy, they feared that a swift exit could endanger the security of Switzerland’s energy supply. However, this fear has been proven misplaced. Only 15% of energy production needed to be substituted within a two-year period. If informed correctly, the public would likely have voted for exiting nuclear energy. Hence a lack of information and knowledge led to an outcome from a popular vote that contradicts citizens’ preferences.

• The most prominent instrument of Swiss direct democracy, the referendum, serves to impede reform and adaptation. It has a strong status-quo bias. One observer has argued that the referendum has the function of a conservative upper house. For example, the delayed development of the Swiss welfare state or the belated enfranchisement of women are mainly due to the institution of direct democracy.

• Direct democracy creates incentives for politicians to compromise. This is a unique component of the Swiss political system: the threat of direct-democratic voting is meant to foster compromise in the pre-parliamentary stage and in parliament.

• Particularly in the recent past, direct democracy has created potential conflicts with human rights and international treaties.

• Direct democracy has been successfully used for populist mobilization, in particular recently. A telling example is a February 2014 initiative which led to a new constitutional amendment capping migration. This amendment cannot be reconciled with Switzerland’s bilateral agreement with the European Union on the free movement of labor. Swiss citizens are in favor both of a cap on migration and continued good relations with the EU. While political elites promised voters that the EU would renegotiate the terms of this agreement, the EU stated from the beginning that it would not renegotiate. As a result, the government and parliament have had to muddle through by not implementing the constitutional amendment.

• The learning capacity of voters is limited. After the failed implementation of a constitutional rule on mass immigration, a third of citizens would even now vote for this failed reform; notwithstanding that a large share of citizens trust that the government is properly handling EU-related matters.

• Frequently, popular initiatives approved by voters and the cantons are only partly implemented through parliamentary legislation.
Rinscheid, Adrain and Rolf Wüstenhagen 2016: Meinungsbildungsprozesse bei energiepolitischen Volksabstimmungen. Erste Ergebnisse einer Längsschnittstudie, St. Gallen: Universität St. Gallen/Hochschule für Wirtschaft und Oekologie (https://iwoe.unisg.ch/de/iwoe-news/2016/20161215_aii_studie).

VOTO 2017: VOTO-Studie zur eidgenössischen Volksabstimmung vom 12. Februar 2017, Lausanne/Aarau/Luzern: FORS et al. (http://www.voto.swiss/etudes-et-donnees/)

Armingeon, Klaus and Philipp Lutz 2018: Voting against all odds, Bern: University of Bern, unpublished manuscript based on an analysis of the 2017 MOSAiCH-survey.

Armingeon, Klaus 2004: Direkte Demokratie und Demokratie in Europa, in: LeGes – Gesetzgebung & Evaluation 3, Bern: Schweizerische Bundeskanzlei, 59-72.

Heidbreder, Eva, Stadelmann-Steffen, Isabelle, Thomann, Eva, Sager Fritz 2019: “EU Referendums in Context: What can we learn from the Swiss Case?” Public Administration. https://doi.org/10.1111/padm.12566.
Citizens have the effective opportunity to take binding decisions on issues of importance to them through either popular initiatives or referendums. The set of eligible issues covers at least two levels of government.
Citizens have the legal right to propose and make binding decisions at the national level. The constitution makes provision both for popular initiatives and referendums. However, no instruments exist at the local level to support popular decision-making.

In 2011, following the president’s invocation of the constitutional procedure for dissolution of parliament, his decision was voted upon in a referendum. Under this procedure, the parliament is dissolved if the act receives voters’ approval, but the president resigns if the act does not receive voters’ approval. In 2011, voters approved the dissolution of parliament and extraordinary elections were held in October 2011. This constitutional procedure had never before been used.

In addition to referendums, the parliament approved a new political decision-making instrument in 2010 that allows citizens to put items on the parliamentary agenda, though it does not afford citizens the right to make binding decisions. Thus, parliamentary procedure now allows for petitions that have gathered 10,000 signatures to move to the parliament for consideration. Under this new instrument, 38 proposals have been forwarded to parliament since 2011, 26 of which were successful. In 2018 alone, 13 proposals were forwarded to parliament.

In 2012, changes were made to the legislation regulating referendums that required petitions to receive 30,000 initial signatures before triggering a referendum, followed by CVK engagement to gather further signatures totaling one-tenth of the electorate. As of 1 January 2015, a one-step procedure took force that eliminated CVK engagement in the signature-gathering phase, placing the responsibility for gathering the signatures of one-tenth of the electorate with the referendum initiators. These changes were adopted with the presumption that there would be an opportunity to gather signatures electronically; however, no simple, user-friendly mechanisms for electronic signature-gathering have yet been put into place. The new requirements are thus prohibitive for any new referendums.

Over the last 10 years, parliament has periodically considered introducing popular initiatives and referendums into the decision-making process at the local government level, but these proposals have never been enacted.
1. Collection of Signatures for Amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Latvia, Report, Available at: http://www.cvk.lv/pub/public/29952.html, Last assessed: 04.01.2019

2. About the Voters’ Initiated Draft Law “Amendments to the Citizenship Law,” Report, Available at: https://www.cvk.lv/pub/public/30436.html, Last Assessed: 04.01.2019

3. Social Initiative Platform ManaBalss.lv, List of Signed Initiatives, Available at (in Latvian): https://manabalss.lv/page/progress, Last assessed: 04.01.2019
Lithuanian citizens can propose policies and make binding decisions on issues of importance to them through referendums and petitions. Since the reestablishment of Lithuania’s independence in 1990, there have been 12 referendums, although only five of these have been successful (including the 2004 referendum approving Lithuania’s membership in the European Union and the 2012 consultative (advisory) referendum on the construction of a new nuclear power plant). The most recent referendum took place in June 2014 but failed due to low voter turnout. It was initiated by a group of citizens and aimed both at restricting the sale of land to foreign citizens and at reducing the number of signatures required to trigger a referendum to 100,000. Today, to call a referendum, a total of 300,000 signatures of Lithuanian citizens with the right to vote must be collected within three months. For the referendum to be valid, more than one-half of all voters must participate. A referendum to amend the constitution to introduce dual citizenship has been called by the parliament. The referendum will be held together with the 2019 presidential elections provided that the Constitutional Court confirms its compliance with the constitution. The idea of extending voting beyond one day to increase the chance of yielding a sufficient turnout to make it valid has been debated. Citizens also have the right to propose a legislative initiative (by collecting 50,000 signatures within two months) that, if successful, must be addressed in parliament. Only two citizens’ initiatives secured the necessary signatures to be debated during the 2012 to 2016 parliament. One initiative proposed to control alcohol consumption, while a second proposed a ban on electricity supplied from the new Belarus nuclear power plant to Lithuania. A right to petition also exists, giving individuals the ability to address the parliament’s Petition Commission.
The Slovak constitution provides far-reaching possibilities for citizens to actively propose and take binding decisions on issues of importance to them through popular initiatives and referendums (articles 93 – 100). Referendums are obligatory in the case of the country entering or withdrawing from an alliance with other states (like the European Union). Furthermore, a referendum can be called for in the case of “other important issues of public interest” (Article 93.2); referendums on basic rights and liberties, taxes, levies, and the state budget are forbidden (Article 93.3). There are two ways to call a referendum: by a resolution of the National Council or on the basis of a petition signed by a minimum of 350,000 citizens. The results of referendums are binding, and the constitutional barriers for changing the decisions are high; only a three-fifths majority in the National Council can overrule a decision made by referendum, and can do so only after three years (Article 99.1). Likewise, no referendum on the same issue can be held until three years have passed (Article 99.2). Similar provisions exist at the local level. In the period under review, however, no nationwide referendum was held, only several local ones took place along with the municipal elections. Moreover, the trade unions have started to collect signatures to initiate a referendum on capping the increase in the retirement age.
Slovenia has a strong tradition of direct democracy. Until a constitutional amendment in May 2013, referendums on all issues could be called by parliament, the National Council (a body representing major interest groups) as well as by citizens themselves. As a result, many referendums were called and, in a number of cases, controversial government initiatives were rejected. A May 2013 constitutional amendment, which was adopted by the legislature with an overwhelming majority, kept the relatively low threshold of signatures required for calling a referendum (40,000), but ruled out the calling of referendums by parliament and by the National Council. Moreover, the set of eligible issues was reduced so as to exclude the public budget, taxes, human rights and international agreements, the majority requirements for the validity of referendums were tightened and the period for which parliament is bound to the results of a referendum was reduced. As a result, the number of referendums has fallen. In the period under review, only one national referendum was held. On 13 May 2018, citizens had the chance to vote for the second time on the construction of a second track along the railway line connecting Koper (Slovenia’s only seaport) to the Divača logistics hub. The referendum, originally conducted in September 2017, was repeated because of irregularities identified by the Supreme Court, which mostly concerned the government’s unacceptable use of taxpayer money during the referendum campaign. The referendum had originally been initiated by an organization of local citizens, the Taxpayers Standing Our Ground, which claimed that the government’s finance model was prone to corruption and inflated payouts. However, voter turnout in the second referendum was again very low (15%). While 50.1% of voters opposed the act, voter turnout was too low to make the result binding on the government.
Popular decision-making mechanisms do not exist in the United States at the federal level. But 24 of the 50 state governments and many local governments provide for some form of direct democracy – with ballot measures giving citizens the opportunity to discuss and vote on public policy and/or constitutional issues. In around 30 states, petitions can force special elections in which voters decide whether to remove or retain one or more challenged elected officials. In several states, a recall with sufficient signatures can launch a by-election for any reason. States or cities have adopted measures granting or restricting rights for the LGBTQ community, legalizing marijuana, mandating certain expenditures, limiting taxes, setting mandatory criminal sentences and other provisions. The contribution of these direct-democracy practices to sustainable governance is controversial.
There are several forms of direct democracy in Bulgaria, at both the local and national levels. The set of eligible issues is limited, as budgetary issues cannot be addressed in municipal or national referendums. At the national level, in addition, the structure of the Council of Ministers, and the personnel of the Council of Ministers, Supreme Judicial Council and Constitutional Court cannot be decided on the basis of referendums. Citizens’ committees can address the National Assembly to call a referendum if they collect at least 200,000 signatures in favor of holding a referendum. If the number of signatures exceed 400,000, the Assembly is obliged to call a referendum. Parliament can, within certain limits set by the law, edit the questions posed. The outcome of referendums is binding only if voter turnout is higher than in the last general election.

In recent years there has been a sudden spurt of referendums, with one in 2013, one in 2015 and one referendum on three different proposals in November 2016. However, in none of the referendums was turnout strong enough to make the results obligatory for parliament. In the period under review, no national referendum was held or initiated.

Requirements for local referendums are less stringent than for national, and 10% of voters with permanent residence in the municipality can make a binding proposal for a referendum. If more than 40% of voters with permanent residence participate, the local referendum is binding for the local government. There were three local referendums in 2017. In one of them, turnout was sufficiently high to ensure that the result was binding on the municipal council.
On the federal level, there are few opportunities for Canadians to make binding decisions on matters of importance to them through popular initiatives or referenda; on this level, it is impossible to circumvent the elected representatives. On the provincial level, British Columbia remains the only jurisdiction in Canada with voter-initiated recall and referendum legislation. It is worth noting that the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform concluded in 1991 that “in Canada, the particular vulnerability of the prime minister and cabinet ministers to the use and abuse of the recall would make this instrument of direct democracy especially detrimental to our system of representative democracy.”
Forum Research. Media Release July 6, 2016, Two Thirds See Need for Referendum on Electoral Reform, posted at http://poll.forumresearch.com/post/2547/two-thirds-see-need-for-referendum-on-electoral-reform/

Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral Democracy, Minister of Supply and Services, 1991, p. 247.
The right to promote referenda and citizens’ initiatives is enshrined in the constitution at the national level of government and is replicated in most of the regions by regional statutes. Referenda may be authorized also at municipal and provincial levels. Ordinary referenda, which can only abrogate existing laws or part of them, have taken place rather frequently at national level. In order to launch a referendum, the proposal must collect at least 500,000 signatures and the referendum is only valid if there is a turnout of at least 50%. Between 1974 and 2016, 67 referenda took place. There are some limited restrictions to the issues that can be submitted to a referendum.

Referenda have had a substantial impact at national level, including ending the use of nuclear energy following the Chernobyl disaster. In some cases, however, the effects of a successful referendum have been overturned by parliamentary laws which while paying formal respect to the referendum results have, in practice, reestablished in new forms some of the rules that had been abrogated.

Confirmative referenda may be promoted on constitutional reforms approved without a two-thirds parliamentary majority. A recent case was the referendum of December 2016, which rejected the broad constitutional reform promoted by the Renzi government. Consultative referenda were promoted in October 2017 by the Lombardy and Veneto regions, which proposed increasing regional autonomy. The final decision, however, will depend on the outcome of negotiations between the central state and regions.

Citizens can also promote legislative initiatives and in some regions and municipalities instruments of deliberative democracy (citizens’ juries, deliberative polling) are available, but these instruments do not have legally binding effects. At local and regional levels, popular decision-making is rarely used effectively.
Citizen initiatives for national referendums are rare but they do happen. Such initiatives have occurred on several occasions at the local level concerning a wide variety of issues, for instance a referendum on poll taxes (for automobiles, “trängselskatt”) in the city of Gothenburg.

Outcomes of referendums are never binding in Sweden. However, it is customary that all parties commit themselves to obeying the outcome of the referendum. In constitutional terms, no referendum can be legally binding.
For an overview over national referendums cf. https://www.scb.se/hitta-statistik/statistik-efter-amne/demokrati/allmanna-val/folkomrostningar-valresultat/.
While the law provides for some forms of popular decision-making, there is no strong tradition of organizing and holding referendums in Croatia. The Sabor, the Croatian parliament, can call a national referendum if it is proposed by at least 10% of the electorate. In the past, the Sabor has refused to do so even in cases of high-profile initiatives by war veterans (2000) and trade unions (2010). Local referendums have also been rare; only a few have ever taken place. However, the success of the referendum on the constitutional definition of marriage in early December 2013 ushered in a wave of initiatives in following years. In mid-June of 2018, conservative NGOs requested the Sabor to initiative two referendums. The initiative “The People Decide” called for the number of members of parliament to be cut from 150 to 120, for an increase in preferential voting on party slates from one to three votes, and for a restriction in minority members of parliament’s voting rights. The initiative “The Truth about the Istanbul Convention,” strongly supported by the Catholic Church, mobilized against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Asked by the Sabor to check the number and authenticity of the collected signatures and the lawfulness of their collection, however, the government found that more than one-tenth of the almost 750,000 signatures provided by the two initiatives were invalid, so that the required thresholds were missed. In February 2019, the Sabor eventually declined calling the two referendums.
In 1987 government incorporated referendums into the Finnish constitution. The provision, laid down in the Law of Procedures in Advisory Referendums, enable advisory referendums to be called by parliament by means of special laws that specify the date of voting and establish the alternatives to be presented to the voters. There are no minimum participation rates or required vote majorities specified. Since that time, only a single national referendum has taken place, in 1994. This addressed Finland’s entry into the European Union.

While this mechanism does not enable direct citizen participation in public policymaking, a constitutional amendment in 2012 introduced a popular-initiative system. This system requires parliament to consider any petition that receives 50,000 signatures or more within six months. However, citizens do not themselves have the opportunity to vote on the initiative issues, as the right of decision and agenda-setting remains with the parliament. The first initiative to receive enough signatories to be submitted to parliament was on the prohibition of fur farming; it was subsequently rejected. A later initiative concerning same-sex marriage also received a sufficient number of signatories and was approved by the parliament after a heated debate. In 2017, an initiative to repeal this decision received more than 100,000 signatures, but was rejected by parliament. Since its establishment, about 800 initiatives have been brought up, of which 24 were submitted to the parliament for debate. At the time of writing, about 40 initiatives are being lined up for consideration by the parliament. The Ministry of Justice maintains an online platform for citizens’ initiatives.

The Finnish system also allows for citizen-initiated municipal referendums. However, municipal authorities determine how such referendums are conducted and results are non-binding.
Dag Anckar, “Finland”, in Bruno Kaufmann and M. D. Waters, eds. Direct Democracy in Europe. Durham, N. C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2004.
Online platform for citizen initiatives; https://www.kansalaisaloite.fi/fi
Henrik Serup Christensen, Maija Karjalainen and Maija Setälä, Kansalaisaloite poliittisen yhdenvertaisuuden näkökulmasta, pp. 435-456 in Kimmo Grönlund and Hanna Wass, eds. Poliittisen osallistumisen eriytyminen, Helsinki: Oikeusministeriö, Selvityksiä ja ohjeita 28, 2016.
In Germany, referenda are of importance on the municipal and state levels. At the federal level, referenda are exclusively reserved for constitutional (Basic Law, Art. 146) and territorial issues. On the municipal and state levels, voter initiatives have grown in use since German unification, with their increasing frequency bolstered by legal changes and growing voter awareness. However, discussions about introducing referenda on the federal level are ongoing and intensifying.

From 1946 to 2016, 349 direct democratic procedures took place on the state level. In some states (e.g., Baden-Wuerttemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate), the government or parliament can, under certain conditions, call a referendum with the power to confirm or overturn a decision by the legislature. The main themes had been education/culture (about 25%) and democracy, state organization, and domestic politics (about 25%). Most commonly used are direct democratic procedures in Hamburg (30.4%), Baden-Wuerttemberg (26.2%), and Berlin (21.7%).

On the municipal level, there were 7,503 procedures between 1956 and 2017, with more than half ince 2003, showing the strong growth over the last two decades.
Mehr Demokratie (2017): Volksbegehrensbericht 2917
https://www.mehr-demokratie.de/fileadmin/ pdf/volksbegehrensbericht_2017.pdf

Mehr Demokratie (2018): Bürgerbegehrensbericht 2018
Since 1919, the constitution of Luxembourg allows referenda (Article 51, Paragraph 7). A modification of a constitutional article introduced the possibility of using a referendum to revise the constitution (Article 114). Direct democracy, in the form of referenda, is possible but not a central aspect of Luxembourg’s political system. A 2005 law outlined the steps needed for a referendum to be held at the national level. The procedure can be initiated either by a parliamentary act or popular initiative. In the latter case, at least 25,000 citizens of Luxembourg must demand a referendum. Since Luxembourg is a small country, this threshold is significant and may explain why only five referenda have taken place since 1919. All referenda resulted from parliamentary or governmental initiatives, including the one in 2005 that sought approval for the EU constitutional treaty.

The first consultative referendum took place on 7 June 2015. In this referendum, all three reform proposals were rejected by very large majorities.

The Local Government Act of 1988 (Article 35) addresses the issue of referenda at the municipal level. One-fifth of registered electors must demand a referendum; local referenda, however, are not binding. The practice is used mostly as a consultative tool which could explain why it is not utilized more frequently. Over the past few years, however, it was used several times to ask citizens of municipalities whether they wanted to merge with another municipality.

Each member of parliament represents an average of just 10,000 citizens; which means citizens have relatively easy access to their representatives. The country’s territorial breakdown produces small units (in 2018, there were a total of 102 communes/ municipalities), which all claim to be in direct contact with citizens. On the other hand, Luxembourg is flooded with citizen initiatives, an informal way to impose views on the political establishment, especially regarding environmental issues.

Furthermore, citizen participation increased due to a new process of online petitions. Online petitions with at least 4,500 signatures must be forwarded to the parliament’s petitions commission, as well as to a parliamentary commission for further debates.

Between July 2014 and July 2018, a total of 660 petitions were submitted. Luxembourgers were most frequently affected by issues concerning traffic and traffic safety, and 18.5% of all petitions were related to traffic issues. Petitions on public facilities (7%) and on taxes (6.5%) were also popular. Nevertheless, many petitions were considered inadmissible by the commission (75 in 2017) because they did not represent a general interest.

If a petition achieves 4,500 or more signatures, the “petitioners” may speak to government members and raise their concerns, as well as other petitioners’ concerns. In some cases, the petitions have a high media impact. Some petition initiators try to attract attention with public campaigns, especially on social media. Thus, petitioners’ concerns often achieve much more than just an opportunity to present before politicians, they stimulate a public debate.
“Exercising the right to petition the Chamber of Deputies.” https://guichet.public.lu/en/citoyens/citoyennete/democratie-participative/depot-requetes-petition/petition-chambre-deputes.html. Accessed 22 Oct. 2018.

“Signature d’une pétition publique.”
https://www.chd.lu/wps/portal/public/Accueil/TravailALaChambre/Petitions/SignerPetition. Accessed 22 Oct. 2018.

Dormal, Michel: “Participation citoyenne, débat constructif, discussion éclairée?
Online-Petitionen in Luxemburg.” Forum.lu, no. 355. https://www.forum.lu/article/participation-citoyenne-dei%c2%81bat-constructif-discussion-ei%c2%81clairei%c2%81e/Accessed 11 Nov. 2018.
Polish law provides for various forms of direct democracy. On the local and regional level, a referendum is called when it is supported by 10% of the electorate. On the national level, referendums can be called only by the lower house of parliament (the Sejm), or the president. The Sejm must decide on whether to call a referendum when a referendum petition is backed by 500,000 voters. Moreover, a total of 100,000 voters can collectively submit a draft bill (“popular initiative”), which the Sejm then has to pass or reject. So far, however, out of the many referendums organized in Poland, only the one addressing Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2003 has recorded voter turnout sufficiently high to make the results binding. Under the PiS government, various groups have used popular initiatives to submit draft bills to the Sejm. Since the 2015 elections, however, no national referendums have been held. In 2017, the PiS majority in the Sejm rejected a referendum on the government’s controversial education reform for which the teachers’ union had collected more than 900,000 signatures. In July 2018, the Senate vetoed President Duda’s initiative to hold a referendum on the constitution, which had passed the Sejm, out of fear that voter turnout rates would be low, and with additional concerns over ambiguous provisions.
Winczorek, P. (2014): Kilka uwag o polskich referendach, in: Ruch Prawniczy, Ekonomiczny i Socjologiczny 76(2) (https://doi.org/10.14746/rpeis.2014.76.2.11).
Citizens have the effective opportunity to vote on issues of importance to them through a legally binding measure. The set of eligible issues is limited to one level of government.
Citizens do not have the legal right to propose and take binding decisions on matters of importance to them at any level of government. Since the establishment of the Federation in 1901, citizens have voted on specific issues 44 times, with eight of those succeeding. They cannot initiate the process. Some of these referendums have covered important issues, such as the 1967 referendum on the status of indigenous people in Australian society. However, no referendum has succeeded since 1977. National referendums are mandatory in the case of parliament-proposed changes to the constitution. Constitutional amendments must be approved in a referendum and the result is binding. In addition, states and territories may also hold referendums on issues other than constitutional amendments.

The Citizen Initiated Referendum Bill, which would have enabled citizens of Australia to initiate legislation for the holding of a referendum to alter the constitution, was presented and read in the Senate in 2013, but did not proceed and lapsed at the end of the 43rd parliament in September 2013.
http://www.aph.gov.au/~/media/05%20 About%20Parliament/54%20Parliamenta ry%20Depts/544%20Parliamentary%20Library/Handbook/43rd_PH_Part5.ashx
Williams, George/Hume, David, 2012, People Power: The History and Future of the Referendum in Australia

Citizen Initiated Referendum Bill 2013, No.
, 2013 (Senator Madigan), A Bill for an act to enable the citizens of Australia to initiate legislation for the holding of a referendum in relation to altering the constitution, and for related purposes, http://www.restoreaustralia.org.au/petition-ups/CIR%20Bill.pdf

Australian Election Commission, Referendum dates and results, http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/referendums/Referendum_Dates_and_Results.htm
Plebiscites (referendums) are obligatory and binding when the matter affects significant constitutional issues. This has been the case only once, in 1994, when Austria had to ratify the treaty of accession to the European Union. Plebiscites are possible (and binding) if a majority of the National Council (the lower house of the two-chamber parliament) votes to delegate the final decision on a proposed law to the voters. This also happened only once, in 1978, when the future of nuclear power in Austria was decided by referendum. There is also the possibility of a non-binding referendum. Thus, in 2013, a non-binding referendum was organized concerning the military draft system. The governing parties and parliament treated the decision – in favor of keeping the existing universal draft – as binding. The small number of direct-democratic decisions made in the past are the consequence of a constitutional obstacle: Except for the case of the obligatory plebiscites, it is the ruling majority that ultimately allows referendums to take place, and therefore controls access to direct-democratic decision-making.

Citizen initiatives are proposals backed by a qualified minority of voters (a minimum of 100,000 individuals, or one-sixth of the voters in at least three of the country’s nine federal states). These initiatives are not binding for parliament, which has only the obligation to debate the proposals. Most citizen initiatives have not succeeded in becoming law.

Reformers have argued that the use of plebiscites should be expanded, possibly by allowing citizen initiatives with very strong support (e.g., backed at least by 300,000 voters) to go to the ballot in the form of a referendum in cases of parliament’s refusal to make the proposal law. This seemingly endless reform will continue into the future and reflects the erosion of trust in the established party system.

The incoming ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government has declared that access to plebiscites will be made easier by reducing the number of signatures required to guarantee a direct-democratic decision. Nonetheless, the coalition government has been caught in a dilemma regarding a promise to make access to plebiscites easier. In 2018, the government ignored a public initiative against a government decision to postpone the implementation of rules to make restaurants and cafés completely smoke-free. This was due to the FPÖ’s interest in positioning itself as the defender of smokers who see themselves as victims of “political correctness.”
In Czechia, there is no legal framework for referendums at the national level. On the municipal and regional level, referendums exist and are held on issues such as mining, the construction of nuclear fuel/waste plants, stricter regulations on lotteries and gaming, and the use of public space and municipal property. Initially, a minimum participation of at least 25% of registered voters was stipulated (298/1992 Col.), which was later increased to 50% (22/2004 Col.) and finally was settled at 35% of registered voters (169/2008 Col.) being required to ensure the validity of a referendum. In the period under review, no regional referendum took place, but there were 13 local referendums. The introduction of referendums at the national level was an important issue in the 2017 election campaign and is likely to remain on the political agenda. It is advocated most clearly by Okamura’s radical-right Party of Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) and by the Communists, who set it as a condition for their silent support for the Babiš government, with ANO also indicating support. Other parties have some reservations concerning how far results should be binding and whether a referendum should also cover membership in international bodies (EU and NATO). Disputes over details mean that no proposal for the necessary constitutional amendment has as yet been presented.
The 2011 constitution has limited the scope for popular decision-making by abolishing popular initiatives, expanding the set of issues exempt from referendums and raising the thresholds for referendum success to a 50% participation threshold. For the weak and fragmented opposition, referendums could have become the most important means of mobilizing support and expressing dissent. A case in point is the successful mobilization for a municipal referendum in Budapest against the 2024 Olympic Summer Games. In January 2017, a group of young activists organized a movement called Momentum and launched a campaign against the unpopular Olympic Games, a prestige project of the Orbán government. All opposition parties joined the “NOlimpia” campaign and Momentum succeeded in collecting 266.000 signatures in a short period of time, much more than needed to have a referendum. Realizing the resistance of the citizens, the Orbán government withdrew its bid for the games in February 2017. Inspired by this success, proposals for referendums have become a fashionable instrument for the opposition. however, all initiatives have been refused by the government-controlled National Election Committee (NVB), which enjoys considerable discretion in deciding whether the issues are eligible for a referendum or not. At the same time; the government has continued in carrying out its annual “national consultations,” fake referendums that are based on letters to citizens with misleading and manipulated questions.
According to Article 26 of the 1944 Icelandic constitution, “If the Althing has passed a bill, it shall be submitted to the president of the republic for confirmation not later than two weeks after it has been passed. Such confirmation gives it the force of law. If the president rejects a bill, it shall nevertheless become valid but shall, as soon as circumstances permit, be submitted to a vote by secret ballot of all those eligible to vote, for approval or rejection. The law shall become void if rejected, but otherwise retains its force.” In the 74-year history of the Republic of Iceland, this paragraph has been invoked three times and has twice led to a nationwide referendum.

In 2012, an advisory national referendum was called by parliament. The referendum asked voters six questions, including whether they wanted to use the constitution bill submitted by the Constitutional Council as the basis for a new constitution. Two-thirds of the voters voted “yes.” In addition, 73% voted in favor of introducing a stipulation enabling 10% of the electorate to demand a national referendum. This reform would mean that referring legislation passed by parliament to a national referendum would no longer remain the prerogative of the president alone. However, the parliament is yet to ratify the constitution bill or use it as a basis for a new one. In February 2016, a Constitutional Committee appointed by the parliament presented three bills on changes to the constitution. One of these bills concerns national referendums and what share of the electorate is needed to realize such referendums. In the bill, the minimum of 10% earlier suggested was raised to 15%. The three bills were not discussed in parliament before it adjourned before the October 2016 election. No action was taken concerning the new constitution during the tenure of the Benediktsson cabinet (January 2017 – September 2017). Proposals for further referendums (e.g., on EU membership negotiations) ring hollow when parliament has yet to respect the outcome of the constitutional referendum of 2012.

A law on local government affairs was passed by parliament in September 2011. This law contained a new chapter called Consultancy with Citizens (Samráð við íbúa), which includes paragraphs on local referendums and citizen initiatives. Under its terms, if at least 20% of the population eligible to vote in a municipality demand a referendum, the local authorities are obliged to hold a referendum within a year. However, local councils can decide to increase this threshold to 33% of eligible voters. At the local level, therefore, significant steps have been taken to improve the opportunity for citizen impact between elections.
Carrillo, David A. (ed.) (2018), The Icelandic Federalist Papers, Berkeley Public Policy Press 2018.

The New Icelandic Constitution: How Did It Come About? Where Is It?, Iðunn, Reykjavík, 2018.

Constitution of the Republic of Iceland No. 33, 17 June 1944.

National Referendum (Þjóðaratkvæði). http://thjodaratkvaedi.is/2010. Accessed 22 December 2018.

The Constitutional Council. http://stjornlagarad.is/english/. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Eythórsson, Grétar Thór & Arnarson, Sveinn (2012), Íslensk sveitarstjórnarmál í brennidepli. Staða sveitarstjórnarstigsins, verkefni, skipan, íbúalýðræði og áhrif efnahagshrunsins. Akureyri. Háskólinn á Akureyri.

Sveitarstjórnarlög nr. 138 28. september 2011

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2013), “From collapse to constitution: The case of Iceland,” in Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic Dynamism, ed. Luigi Paganetto, Springer.
The first Constitution of the Irish Free State in 1922 provided powers of “initiative” and “referendum” to the Irish people. However, the first government removed these rights and they were never exercised.

While Article 6 of the constitution introduced in 1937 states that: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate all the rulers of the state and, in the final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good,” it contains no provisions for direct initiatives or referendums. The main constitutional provision for referendums refers to proposed amendments to the constitution. The constitution also provides for a referendum on a proposal other than a proposal to amend the constitution (referred to in law as an “ordinary referendum”) but the initiative for such a referendum resides with the parliament. No “ordinary referendum” has been held in the state to date.

Direct Democracy Ireland, a political party, wants to replace representative democracy with participatory democracy in Ireland and to allow citizens to petition for a referendum on any issue by collecting a certain number of signatures. It obtained only 1.5% of the votes cast in the 2014 European Parliament election.

The constitutional convention discussed the question of popular initiatives and referendums, but did not make a recommendation on the issue.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, The Referendum in Ireland, July 2012, available at

The Constitutional Convention’s concluding commentary is available here:
New Zealand
Citizens have the right to propose a national referendum. Legally non-binding Citizens’ Initiated Referendums (CIRs) were first introduced in 1993, the year the government held its own binding referendum on the reform of the electoral system. Most CIRs are initiated by individuals or small groups. While a total of 46 CIR petitions have been launched to date, only five have come to a vote, with other proposals either failing to meet the signature target (10% of registered voters within 12 months) or having lapsed. All five referendums secured majority support, but were subsequently rejected by the government in office at the time. Whereas CIR supporters contend that the “will of the majority” is being ignored, a consensus exists among leaders of the major political parties that the non-binding provision in CIRs should be retained.
After the 2017 election, the Greens, Labour and NZ First agreed to hold a referendum on recreational marijuana before or at the 2020 election. In December 2017, the government announced that it would be holding a binding referendum on legalizing the personal use of cannabis during the 2020 general election. However, in November 2018, the Justice Minister announced the government would consider rolling several referendums together: that is, euthanasia (“end of life choice” in the case of terminal illness); the MMP system of governance; and the legalization of recreational marijuana.
News Hub. 2018. Triple-header referendum looms for 2020. 26 November 2018. https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2018/11/triple-header-referendum-looms-for-2020.html.
South Korea
Citizen referendums can be conducted at the local and provincial levels, requiring the support of at least 5% to 20% of voters to be called, and a turnout of at least 33% to be valid. However, results are not legally binding. The Blue House has also introduced a petition system under which the government is required to address a certain topic if at least 200,000 citizens sign a petition. There have been several binding recall votes at the local level, although the rate of success for such efforts is very low, because voter turnout rates have typically been lower than the required 33.3%. At the national level, only the president can call a referendum, but this has never taken place. In 2017, President Moon announced a referendum addressing amendments to the constitution that would improve people’s basic rights and provide local governments with greater autonomy. However, the referendum was rejected by the opposition party in the parliament, and thus could not take place. As of the time of writing, no new date for a referendum had been set.
Korea TImes. Moon seeks referendum on constitutional revision next year. November 10, 2017. http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/10/356_234939.html
NEC, http://www.nec.go.kr/engvote/overview/residents.jsp
“Fail on recall Governor Hong caused by the institution,” Oh My News October 28, 2016 (in Korean) http://www.ohmynews.com/NWS_Web/View/at_pg.aspx?CNTN_CD=A0002255460
Kang, Jin-Kyu. 2018. “Constitutional reform derailed”. Korea Joongang Daily, April 25. Retrieved October 13, 2018 (http://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=3047355)
Since the 2008 – 2014 economic crisis, there has been strong public demand to give citizens a more direct role in Spain’s political decisions. While the two main participatory-democracy mechanisms that formally exist in Spain (the citizens’ legislative initiative and the referendum) have largely been ignored, several innovations in popular deliberation and decision-making have taken place in the last several years (with particular relevance at the EU and local levels).

The effectiveness of the popular legislative-initiative model, which enables the public to put a measure in front of the legislature, is quite limited due to the high number of signatures required. Moreover, other political and legal obstacles exist, such as the fact that initiatives are not allowed on matters concerning fundamental rights, the state’s institutional structure, taxation, international affairs or the prerogative of pardon. Historically, even when the 500,000-signature threshold has been reached, the huge majority of those initiatives have been dismissed. Only two of the 94 popular legislative initiatives launched since 1983 have become law.

The second means of popular decision-making relates to the option of submitting political decisions of special importance to all citizens in a referendum. However, Spaniards have been asked to vote in only three national referendums since democratization, in addition to seven such votes held in the various autonomous communities. Since 2012, Catalan nationalist forces (who constitute between 45% and 55% of the voters in that region) have pushed for a referendum on independence. However, this would be illegal according to the Spanish Constitution, and this maximalist position has generated a major political crisis.

Several other modes of popular consultation have also been developed recently, enabling Spain’s citizens to express their political opinions on key issues. Several regional governments have opened the door to consultative procedures in pre-legislative processes. Similarly, many local authorities, including Madrid and Barcelona, enabled participatory budgeting during 2018. Other innovations in local direct democracy include the use of e-democracy and deliberative forums.

Spaniards are quite active with regard to citizen participation in EU policymaking. Since 1993, every EU citizen has had the right to address the European Parliament with a petition. In 2017, a total of 1,271 petitions were filed, with most coming from Spain, Italy and Germany. During 2018, Spain also undertook the so-called European Citizens’ Consultations, a participatory experiment that was supported by both Rajoy’s conservative government and socialist Pedro Sánchez.
Decide Madrid:
https://decide.madrid.es/?locale =en

Llaudes, S.; I. Molina and I. Toygur. 2018. “Spain” In The European Citizens’ Consultations - Evaluation report, eds. P. Butcher and C. Stratulat. Brussels: European Policy Centre and The Democratic Society. www.epc.eu/pub_details.php?cat_id=1&pub_id=8839

Lorente, J. 2018. “Spain: no country for direct democracy?” In Direct Democracy in the EU, eds. S Blockmans and S. Russack. Brussels: CEPS https://www.ceps.eu/system/files/EU_Direct_Democracy_CEPS_RLI_paperback_Blockmans_Russack.pdf
According to the constitution, one-third of the members of the Folketing can request that an adopted bill be sent to a referendum. A majority of those voting, representing not less than 30% of the electorate, can reject the bill. There are some bills that are exempt from referendums, including those on finance, appropriation, civil servants, salaries and pensions, naturalization, expropriation and taxation. There are no provisions in the constitution for regional or communal referendums, such referendums can only be consultative.

The constitution allows for the delegation of powers to international authorities provided such a move is supported by a five-sixth majority in the parliament. If there is an ordinary majority in the parliament, but less than five-sixth, the bill must be submitted to the electorate. For rejection, a majority of voters, representing at least 30% of the electorate, must reject the measure.

According to constitution, changing the qualifying age for suffrage also requires a referendum. Since 1978, the voting age has been 18.

A change in the constitution itself requires confirmation by a referendum. First, such an amendment must be passed by two parliaments with an election in between. Then it must be confirmed by a majority of the voters representing at least 40% of the electorate. This very stringent procedure makes it difficult to change the constitution.

The use of referendums in Denmark is mostly for EU-related decisions, including membership in the European Communities (1972) and subsequent for treaty reforms, including the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty (which required two referendums to be adopted) and the Amsterdam Treaty. In a referendum in 2000, a majority voted that Denmark should not adopt the euro. Similarly, in a referendum on justice and home affairs cooperation within the European Union (2015), a majority voted “no.” The use of referendums is controversial. Many question whether voters really know what they vote for, if it becomes a confidence vote on the government or the current state of the national economy.

There are no provisions in the Danish constitution for popular initiatives, but by law a “citizens’ proposal” has recently been introduced. If a proposal for a law secures the support of 50,000 voters, the proposal must be debated by the parliament. Though the parliament remains free to reject the proposal (Law of 26 December 2017).
The Danish Constitutional Act of June 5, 1953, http://www.eu-oplysningen.dk/upload/application/pdf/0172b719/Constitution%20of%20Denmark.pdf (accessed 26 April 2013).
Peter Germer, Statsforfatningsret. 5. udgave. Copenhagen: Jurist- og Økonomforbundets Forlag, 2012.
Palle Svensson, “Denmark: the Referendum as Minority Protection,” http://www.folkestyre.dk/english/White%20Papers/SVENSSON1.htm (accessed 26 April 2013).
Finn Laursen, “Denmark and the Ratification of the Lisbon Treaty: How a Referendum was Avoided,” in Finn Laursen, ed., The Making of the Lisbon Traty: The Role of Member States. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2012, pp. 237-258.
“Om borgerforslag,” https://www.borgerforslag.dk/om-borgerforslag/ (Accessed 7 November 2018).
The Fifth Republic (since 1958) reintroduced the referendum, not only for the ratification of the constitution but as an instrument of government. President Charles de Gaulle used referendums to seek support for decolonization and to revise the constitution, and in doing so, bypassed parliamentary opposition. In 1969, de Gaulle became essentially a victim of the referendum, as he had declared that he would resign should a referendum on regionalization fail. Since then, the referendum has been used less frequently. The use of referendums at the request and for the benefit of the executive is a risky enterprise. All referendums after those of 1962 have been characterized either by indifference and high levels of abstentions or by outright rejection, as in 2005 on the European Constitutional Treaty. Only once, on the vote over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, was the executive able to secure a small, albeit fragile, majority.

As only the president may call a referendum, the practice is perceived as an instrument of the executive and not as a real democratic tool, since popular initiatives are not possible under the referendum system. It is true that since 2015, 20% of the members of parliament, supported by 10% of the electorate, may enforce a national referendum. However, the rules and procedures are very restrictive, and do not allow real progress.

Local referendums can be organized in the case of a merger of communes or for local issues at a mayor’s initiative. However, very few have taken place. In general, the direct involvement of the public in policymaking is scarce and functions poorly due to the reluctance of public authorities and the lack of an effective popular culture of public participation. The Notre-Dame des Landes airport saga is a point in case. After more than 30 years of conflictual deliberations, protests and a positive but purely consultative referendum in 2016, the government finally decided to withdraw the project in January 2018.
There are no provisions for legally binding referenda or popular initiatives at the federal level in Mexico. Attempts by the opposition to subject government initiatives to some kind of direct vote have failed because there is no constitutional provision for this. Citizens are therefore more likely to influence public policy through demonstrations or legal action than through popular decision-making.
In October 2018, an NGO organized a referendum on a planned airport near Mexico City, scheduled to be the third largest in the world. About one million Mexicans participated, a majority of almost 70% rejected the new airport. A novelty in Mexico, it was not legally binding. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promised to introduce new direct and popular decision-making mechanisms.
According to the Romanian constitution, national referendums are required automatically for any revision to the constitution (as happened in 1991 and 2003) and following the impeachment of the president (as in 2007 and 2012). In addition, the president can (after consultation with parliament) call for referendums on matters of national interest, as in the case of the 2007 electoral-system referendum and the 2009 referendum on parliamentary reform. For referendum results to be legally binding, turnout needs to be above a certain threshold, which was lowered from 50% to 30% by a law passed in May 2013. At the national level, citizens do not have the general right to initiate a referendum. However, if more than 500,000 citizens support a change in the constitution, parliament can approve a revision, which then must pass a nationwide referendum. At the county level, citizens can initiate referendums. However, such initiatives are subject to approval by the County Council and have remained rare.

During the period under review, one national referendum was held in October 2018 on whether or not the constitution should be amended to restrict the definition of a “union” as that between a man and a woman and thereby enshrine a more restrictive definition of marriage within the constitution. The referendum followed an almost two-year long campaign by the conservative Coalition for Family (Coalitia pentru Familie), a coalition of non-governmental organizations aiming to “preserve the traditional family” amid fears that the current wording might favor the legal recognition of same-sex relationships. The initiative for a referendum was supported by the governing PSD/ALDE coalition which had announced several times its intent to hold a referendum, eventually calling it on short notice. The referendum suffered from a number of irregularities, including the extension of the voting period to two days by a government emergency ordinance, arbitrary decisions regarding continued campaigning during the days on which the referendum was held and a lenient approach toward multiple voting. Ultimately, with just over 20% of Romanians casting a ballot in the referendum, it failed to meet the minimum voter turnout threshold of 30% and therefore did not pass.
Expert Forum (2018): There can be no referendum in October or November. Policy Brief No. 66, Bucharest (https://expertforum.ro/en/disaster-referendum-law/).
Expert Forum (2018): Raport de monitrozare: Referendum 2018. Policy Brief No. 68, Bucharest (https://expertforum.ro/en/referendum-report-2018/).
Binding popular initiatives and referendums are unlawful both nationally and subnationally, as they are considered to be incompatible with the representative system. At the municipal level, many experimental referendum ordinances have been approved since the 1990s, but the national government has prohibited several ordinances that gave citizens too much binding influence on either the political agenda or the outcome of political decision-making. In 2016, a large number of municipal government mayors, aldermen, councilors, scientists and businessmen initiated “Code Orange” for “civocracy,” (“citizen power”) which aims to involve citizens more in local governance through “citizen pacts” (“burgerakkoord”). The citizen pacts are intended to replace and/or complement the traditional “coalition pacts” between local political parties, which normally are the basis for policymaking. After the 2018 elections experiments in citizen pacts are being conducted. Though all the experiments are struggling with the practical aspects of integrating citizen pacts into the legal framework and normal division of labor of local forms of representative democracy.

At national level, the issue has been on the political agenda since the 1980s. Under pressure from new populist political parties, the Dutch government organized a consultative referendum on the new European Constitution in 2005, using an ad hoc temporary law. With turnout of 63.3% of the eligible electorate, this constitution was rejected by a clear majority of 61.5%, sending shockwaves through all EU member states and institutions. In September 2014, a bill for an advisory referendum on laws and treaties passed the Senate, and was implemented on 1 July 2015. This law allows for non-binding referendums on petitions that gain 10,000 signatories within a four-week period. Subsequently, another 300,000 citizens are needed to sign up in support of the initial request within a six weeks period.

Geen Peil, an ad hoc anti-EU organization, successfully mobilized enough votes for an advisory referendum on the provisional EU association treaty with Ukraine, which was signed by the Dutch government. With a mere 32.3% voter turnout, the no-vote (61%) was valid nevertheless, and the government was obliged to renegotiate the deal at EU level. In March 2018, in another consultative referendum, Dutch voters rejected a proposed Law on the Intelligence and Security Services (Wet op de Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdiensten) by a narrow margin (49.44% against, 46.53% for and 4% undecided). This result forced the government to reconsider some parts of the law. The unpleasant referendum campaigns and their contested outcomes prompted the Rutte III government to abolish the consultative referendum as one of its first regulatory decisions. Nevertheless, the Remkes Commission for State-Legitimacy Reforms (Staatkundige Hervorming) states that Dutch democracy suffers from a “representation deficit” defined by demography, educational attainment, wealth and professional background. Among many other reforms, the Remkes Commission seriously considers putting the issue of a binding referendum on the political agenda.
R. Hoppe (2010/11), Institutional constraints and practical problems in deliberative and participatory policymaking, in Policy & Politics, Vol. 39, Nr. 2, 163-183 (online 19 August 2010, DOI: 10.1332/030557310X519650)

NOS, Nee-stem in Oekraïne-referendum blijft zonder gevolgen, 2 October 2016 (nog.nl, consulted 9 November 2016)

VNG, Code Oranje voor verandering politieke democratie, 26 October 2016 (eng.nl, consulted 9 November 2016)

M. Chavannes, Wat je stem wel en niet zegt bij het referendum, De Correspondent, 16 March 2018

Nieuwsuur, Commissie Remkes pleit voor invoering bindend referendum (https://nos.nl/l/x/2237616?social=m, accessed 25 October 2018
It may seem strange at a time when UK politics is almost completely determined by the result of a referendum, but formally referenda play a small role in UK governance. They are rarely called in the United Kingdom, although they have been used in a handful of cases in recent years, including at local level to decide on whether to establish an elected mayor. Referenda also only follow from a government decision, rather than a citizen initiative, and require a specific legislative initiative to be enacted instead of being a routine process. The legal foundations for calling a referendum and binding the government to its outcome are weak, as the results are not legally binding. Citizens can, via an online petition, call for a parliamentary debate on any topic. Yet, the House of Commons is not obliged to agree to the debate and high-profile proposals can be – and frequently are – ignored. However, the outcome of the Brexit vote shows that they can become politically decisive and may lead to major changes in the United Kingdom’s political system. Despite their lack of constitutional standing, referenda in the United Kingdom have a de facto influence on policy decisions, but this is rather ad hoc.

Referenda are often more a part of politics and agenda setting than a structural part of the United Kingdom’s policymaking process. The central government may use a referendum to unite the population behind a controversial position and by that silence their critics for good. Tony Blair’s devolution referenda in 1997 and 1998 or David Cameron’s referendum to keep the traditional “first past the post” voting system in 2011 are good examples, as was the 1975 referendum which was used by then Prime Minister Wilson to counter opponents of the European Union in his party. By contrast, in the 2016 referendum, a majority of voters declared their wish to leave the European Union against the advice of the leaders of the mainstream political parties, although several leading figures in these parties, in and out of government, opposed their party lines. Recently, the case for a second referendum on the results of the Brexit negotiation has been loudly pushed by the People’s Vote initiative, but has been strongly resisted by other politicians, including the leaders of the two main parties.

The conduct of the 2016 EU referendum has elicited legal action regarding the use of personal data and breaches of spending limits, as well as allegations of Russian influence. These concerns highlight the pitfalls of an instrument with which the electorate and the political system generally have little familiarity.
Referendums are illegal in Belgium. The main rationale is to avoid a “tyranny of the majority,” given the fragmentation between Flemish speakers (a majority at the national level), German speakers (the smallest group at the national level), and French speakers (about 40% of the national population, but a majority in the Brussels region).

Some popular initiatives are tolerated, but their outcomes are not binding, and are considered only as suggestions by authorities. At the local level, “popular consultations” can be organized, but these are largely controlled by local authorities and are rare.

More focused public consultations, however, are organized on a regular basis for city planning decisions, building permits and similar issues. Again, public input is not binding, but in this case constitutes an important element of the decision-making process. At the regional level, there is increasing political interest in various participatory and deliberative processes, but not to the extent of producing binding decisions. For example, since 2016 the Walloon parliament has been examining various deliberative-process formulas involving randomly selected citizens, which may ultimately inform parliamentary debates on some key policy issues. Furthermore, other participatory or deliberative initiatives have also been launched, such as the ambitious “G1000” process, but these are rather bottom-up initiatives led by academics and citizens, and have not yet been adopted by mainstream parties or integrated into institutional processes.

Belgium’s complex institutional architecture also means that approval is sometimes needed at the local, regional and federal levels before a project can proceed. This gives rise to considerable not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) lobbying of the kind that has delayed the creation of a train network across the greater Brussels region for decades and has blocked completion of the southern part of the Brussels motorway ring.
About the ‘G1000’ deliberative process (and linked initiatives): http://www.g1000.org/en/
The Chilean constitution is one of the most restrictive on the topic of direct democracy (e.g., referenda, plebiscites and citizens’ initiatives) in present-day Latin America. The last nationwide plebiscite was initiated by the government in 1989, albeit during a military dictatorship and in the midst of the agreement process on the transition to democracy. At the moment, the national government does not contemplate mechanisms for direct democracy, though they have been called for by various civil society groups and movements. At the municipal level, the Organic Constitutional Law of Municipalities (2002) provides for popular consultations (i.e., plebiscites). These may be either top-down (at the initiative of a mayor, with the agreement of the council, or by the municipal council itself, with a two-thirds majority) or bottom-up (by a minimum of 10% of a municipality’s citizens). Thus, the possibility to initiate referenda at the municipal level officially exists, but these referenda are not necessarily legally binding and may be ignored by the authorities.
According to the Estonian constitution, referendums can be initiated by the national parliament (Riigikogu); citizens do not have the power to initiate a referendum. Municipalities can organize referendums on local issues, but their outcomes are non-binding. According to the Local Government Organization Act, popular local initiatives signed by at least 1% of the municipal population must be discussed by the local council, although this provision is rarely exercised.

There is strong public support for the introduction of a binding referendum mechanism at the national level and the issue is occasionally raised by opposition parties. However, no progress has been made toward this goal. Instead of referendums, a 2014 measure enables citizens to initiate amendments to existing laws or propose new laws. To start the parliamentary proceedings of this kind, the proposal must be signed by at least 1,000 people, must include an explanation why the current legal regulation is not satisfactory, and must describe what kind of amendments should be made. An online platform (rahvaalgatus.ee) is available through which citizens can initiate the process and collect signatures. Annually, about 10 initiatives enter the parliamentary agenda and several popular initiatives are included in legislative amendments currently under consideration.
Politically binding popular decision-making does not exist in Japan, at least in a strict sense. At the local and prefectural levels, referendums are regulated by the Local Autonomy Law. They can be called if 2% of the voting population demands them. However, referendum results are non-binding for local and prefectural assemblies.

A National Referendum Law took effect in 2010. It was revised in 2014 to lower the minimum age for voting on constitutional amendments from 20 to 18, taking effect in 2018. According to the law, any constitutional change has to be initiated by a significant number of parliamentarians (100 Lower House members or 50 Upper House members) and has to be approved by two-thirds of the Diet members in both chambers. If this happens, voters are given the opportunity to vote on the proposal.

The Abe government has indicated plans to call such a referendum for the first time in postwar history, supported by its retention of a two-thirds majority in the 2017 Lower House election. This means that practical questions are coming to the fore as the process is in fact somewhat under-regulated, for instance with respect to the allowable range of political commercials.

Despite the legal strictures, nonbinding referendums have played an increasingly important role in Japan’s regional politics in recent years, particularly with respect to the debate over nuclear energy.
Gabriele Vogt, Alle Macht dem Volk? Das direktdemokratische Instrument als Chance für das politische System Japans, in: Japanstudien 13, Munich: Iudicium 2001, pp. 319-342

Tomoya Ishikawa, Critics seek level playing field in referendum on Constitution, The Asahi Shimbun, 22 June 2017, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201706220001.html

Liberal Democratic Party won’t present Constitution revision plan to Diet this year, The Japan Times, 28 November 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/11/28/national/politics-diplomacy/ldp-not-present-constitution-revision-plan-diet-year/
The constitution of Malta allows for three types of referendums: constitutional, consultative and abrogative. None of these types however fulfill the criteria for popular decision-making defined by the SGI. However, Malta has had several consultative referendums, the most recent in 2011 on the introduction of divorce, and an abrogative referendum on the issue of spring hunting. In the latter case, the referendum was triggered by a citizens’ initiative. Some local councils have also resorted to referendums, but while this may influence central government decisions, they are not binding.
The Constitution of Malta
The institution of referenda exists at national and local levels. However, while citizens can propose referenda, the referendum itself takes place only if there is agreement from political officeholders. In the case of national-level referenda, the Assembly of the Republic or the government must propose the referendum to the president, and the president must accept this proposal. Citizens can propose local referenda, but the local Municipal Assembly can decide whether to call these referenda or not.

In practice, referenda are rare in Portugal. There have been only three national referenda in Portugal since the transition to democracy, with the most recent having been held in 2007. Local referenda are also rare, with five having officially taken place, the most recent of which was in 2012.

Participatory budgets are widely used in Portugal, both at local and national levels. The country is now a world leader in terms of the implementation participatory governance mechanisms and the Costa government was the first worldwide to introduce national-level participatory budgets in 2016/17.
Público (2018), “Orçamentos participativos espalham-se pelo mundo, com Portugal na dianteira,” available online at: https://www.publico.pt/2018/10/22/politica/noticia/orcamentos-participativos-espalhamse-mundo-portugal-dianteira-1848283

Citizens have no effective opportunity to vote on issues of importance to them through a legally binding measure.
The constitution makes no provision for referendums and does not grant citizens the right to make binding decisions. Law 206/1989 provides that the Council of Ministers can initiate such a procedure and ask the House of Representatives to decide on whether a referendum should be held. Citizens cannot petition to initiate such a process. The Interior Ministry must call and organize the vote. The only general referendum held to date took place in April 2004 and was focused on a United Nations plan for settling the Cyprus problem. A special law (L.74(I)/2004), enabled members of the Greek Cypriot community to vote. In that case, the outcome was binding. Referendums are also held when local communities wish to become municipalities.

In October 2018, a draft law on e-petitions was under discussion by a parliamentary committee.
1. Law on organizing referendums, L. 206/1989, available in Greek at, http://www.cylaw.org/nomoi/enop/non -ind/1989_1_206/full.html.
No effective opportunity to vote on important issues was available to Greeks in the last few years. While referendums are provided for in the constitution, the government’s surprise decision in July 2015 to launch a referendum destabilized the economy and negatively affected relations between Greece and its euro zone partners. The referendum was held on the European Commission’s draft proposal of reforms for Greece, while negotiations were still under way. Prime Minister Tsipras rejected this proposal, launched the referendum and won with 61% of votes. A week later, however, the prime minister accepted all reforms planned by the European Commission. Realizing that the Greek state’s coffers were empty, he accepted a bailout package of €86 billion with severe conditions. The Syriza-ANEL government had gambled with a referendum and miscalculated the consequences of the referendum’s outcome.
Τhe conduct of referendums in Greece is regulated by article 44 of the constitution and Law 4023/2011.
Israel’s government and parliament have traditionally given little support to popular decision-making mechanisms. However, in March 2014 the Knesset approved Basic Law: Referendum. This law will apply in the event of an agreement or unilateral decision that involves withdrawal from certain geographical areas. The law has never been applied and the use of referenda is limited to this particular issue.

Attempts at encouraging popular decision-making mechanisms tend to take the form either of (1) open information projects or websites addressing national interest investigation committees, or (2) special legal provisions allowing citizens to appeal against decisions on certain issues (e.g., urban planning) or addressing parliament committees on issues that directly concern them. These sorts of initiatives, while important, align with a top-down strategy for civil participation instead of encouraging independent initiatives.

These initiatives, however, remained largely in early stages, and we were unable to find any meaningful ways through which Israeli citizens can affect the decision process directly (that is: without media pressure, persuasion via lobbying firms or appeal to the courts).
Altshuler-Shwartz, Tehila, “Open government policy in Israel in the digital age,” Israel democracy institute, 2012. (Hebrew)

“Future recommendations,” sharing: committee for social and economical transformation website. (Hebrew)

Gefen, Haaron, “The effect of institutionalizing participatory democracy on the level of sharing by public organization employees,” Israel Democracy Institute, 2011 (Hebrew)

Karmon, Yoav “Re-inventing Israel’s Democracy,” Vaksman, Efrat and Blander, Dana, “Models for sharing,” Israel Democracy Institute website 2012 (Hebrew)

“Sharing on governmental issues,” Israeli government website (Hebrew)
Government decision-making is inclusive in that organized interests have access to and are incorporated in regular processes of planning and implementation. The system makes no provision for direct citizen participation in the form of legally binding public votes or citizen referendum initiatives. Referendums have been used, but only in exceptional issues (the last time in the vote on EU membership in 1994), and even then are constitutionally only consultative (through in practice are treated as binding).
According to Article 67 of the constitution, all citizens over 18 years old have the right to take part in referendums. Referendums are held in accordance with the principles of free, equal, secret and direct universal suffrage, with votes counted publicly. In recent years, referendums were held to amend the 1982 constitution. Paragraph 3 of Article 175 of the constitution reads that, if the parliament adopts a draft constitutional amendment referred by the president by a two-thirds majority, the president may submit the law to a referendum. Laws related to constitutional amendments that are the subject of a referendum must be supported by more than half of the valid votes cast in order to be approved.

If a law on an amendment to the constitution is adopted by at least a three-fifths majority but less than a two-thirds majority of the total number of members of the Grand National Assembly, and is not sent back to the Assembly for reconsideration by the president, it is then published in the Official Gazette and submitted to a referendum.

A law on a constitutional amendment adopted by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly directly or upon the return of the law by the president may be submitted to a referendum by the president.

Popular decision-making is also possible at the local level. Law 5593 on municipalities (Article 76) enables city councils to implement policies for the benefit of the public. Yet these units are not wholly effective, as they depend upon the goodwill of the local mayor, and some councils exist on paper only and have yet to be established in fact. Law 6360, in effect since 2014, paved the way for more centralized decision-making processes, including in urban planning and on local matters. Some municipalities conducted local referendums on traffic management, strategic planning for 2015 to 2019 and environmental planning.

Turkey has not signed the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention).
H. Akay, Yerel Yönetimlerde Katılımcı Mekanizmalar ve Süreçler, Istanbul: Türkiye Avrupa Vakfı, 2016.
Emine Behiye Karakitapoğlu, Public participation in EIA process of small hydro power plants (HES) in Turkey, University of Uppsala, 2015.
Semanur Karaman (2013), How do Turkish citizens participate in decision-making? 4 August 2013, https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/semanur-karaman/how-do-turkish-citizens-participate-in-decision-making
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