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 and Philipp Lutz 2019: Muddling between responsiveness and responsibility: the Swiss case of a non-implementation of a constitutional rule, in: Comparative European Politics, First published online: April 24, 2019:https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-019-00185-2

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.

Milic, Thomas. 2015. ““For They Knew What They Did” – What Swiss Voters Did (Not) Know About the Mass Immigration Initiative.” Swiss Political Science Review 21: 48-62.
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 includes provisions for both popular initiatives and referendums. However, no instruments exist at the local level to support popular decision-making. Indeed, 2019 saw the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Regional Development crackdown on attempts by local authorities to organize informal referendums on proposals to merge and reorganize the boundaries of local government units.

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 2011, following the president’s invocation of the constitutional procedure for dissolving the parliament, the decision was voted on in a referendum. Under this procedure, a parliament can be dissolved if the act receives voters’ approval, but the president must resign 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 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. CVK (Central Voting Comission): Voters’ Initiatives and Collection of Signatures, Available at: https://www.cvk.lv/en/voters-initiatives/collection-of-signatures, Last assessed: 04.11.2019

2. Social Initiative Platform ManaBalss.lv, List of Signed Initiatives, Available at (in Latvian): https://manabalss.lv/page/progress, Last assessed: 04.11.2019

3. CVK (Central Voting Comission) (2011) Referendum on Dissolution of the 10th Saeima, https://www.cvk.lv/en/referendums/referendum-on-dissolution-of-the-10th-saeima-2011, Last assessed: 04.11.2019.
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 14 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). A referendum to amend the constitution to introduce dual citizenship was held in conjunction with the 2019 presidential elections, but this failed to attract the number of votes necessary to change the constitution. 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. 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.
no changes.
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, no national referendums were held, but several local referendums were held in parallel to the local elections in November 2018. These referendums addressed various local policies and issues, such as a proposed redrawing of municipal borders for the city of Jezersko, which would allow the neighboring city of Kamnik to share a border with Austria.
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.

National referendums were held in 2013 and 2015, and with another that included three different proposals in 2016. However, turnout levels were not high enough in any these referendums to make the results obligatory for parliament.

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. Three local referendums were held in 2017, and another two in 2019. In one case in 2019, voter turnout was high enough to make the results binding.
On the federal level, there are few opportunities for Canadians to make binding decisions on matters of importance to them through popular initiatives or referendums; 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 referendums and petitions is enshrined in the constitution at the national level of government, and is replicated in most of the regions through regional statute. Referendums may be authorized also at municipal and provincial levels. Ordinary referendums, 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 referendums took place. There are some limited restrictions to the issues that can be submitted to a referendum.

Referendums 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 some of the old, abrogated rules in a new form.

Confirmative referendums 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 referendums 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 in 2014.

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.


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 initiate 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 decided against calling the two referendums. Between April and May 2019, trade unions collected signatures in favor of a referendum on amending the 2018 Pension Insurance Act. Although the required number of signatures was collected, no referendum was called, as the government eventually accepted all demands in September 2019.
The government incorporated referendums into the Finnish constitution in 1987. 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 the system’s establishment, more than 1,000 initiatives have been brought up, 28 of which have been submitted to the parliament for debate. At the time of writing, 67 initiatives were 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, referendums are of importance on the municipal and state levels. At the federal level, referendums 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 referendums on the federal level are ongoing and intensifying.

From 1946 to 2019, 351 direct democratic procedures took place. 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%). Bavaria (57), Hamburg (50) and Brandenburg (49) used direct democratic procedures most frequently. There is an interesting imbalance between the German Länder. Whereas in the Länder of the former West Germany, direct democratic processes are relatively common (especially in Bavaria, Hamburg and Berlin), the number of such procedures in the Länder of the former East Germany remains extremely low; indeed, no plebiscite has yet been initiated from below, by the population, in these federal states.

These activities proved particularly intense in 2018 proved particularly intense with regard to. A total of 17 new referendums were initiated in the country, considerably more than in the previous years, along with 31 ongoing procedures, mainly driven by civil society. In addition, 15 mandatory constitutional referendums were held in Hesse (Mehr Demokratie 2019: 40). Since 1949, a total of 351 referendums in the country have been initiated by the public or civil society groups rather than legislative bodies.

In some states (e.g., Baden-Wuerttemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate), citizens can, under certain conditions, call a referendum with the power to confirm or overturn a decision by the legislature. Since 2014, no such referendums have occurred.
Mehr Demokratie (2019)

Mehr Demokratie (2017): https://www.mehr-demokratie.de/fileadmin/ pdf/volksbegehrensbericht_2017.pdf
The constitution of Luxembourg has allowed referenda since 1919 (Article 51, Paragraph 7). An amended constitutional article introduced the possibility of using a referendum to revise the constitution (Article 114). Thus, direct democracy in the form of referenda is possible, but is not a central aspect of Luxembourg’s political system. A 2005 law outlined the steps needed before a referendum could 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 (75 in 2017) were considered inadmissible by the commission 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 are widely covered in the media. 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 make a presentation to politicians, serving additionally to stimulate a broader 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 19 Oct. 2019.
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 consultative referendum on the constitution. The initiative passed the Sejm, but was not fully backed by the PiS leadership out of fear that voter turnout rates would be low. The Senate has raised concerns over ambiguous provisions that could limit its own competencies compared to the ones of the president.
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 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.”

During the 2017 – 2019 parliamentary period, several proposals to transform citizen initiatives – starting from a minimum size of success – into binding referendums following, for example, the Swiss model were discussed. As the legislative period ended prematurely in summer 2019, parliament was unable to formulate a decision.
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. Several local referendums were held at the same time as the 2019 European Parliament elections. 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.
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. In the latest referendum on justice and home affairs cooperation within the European Union (2015), a majority voted “no.” The use of referendums is controversial. Many have questioned whether referendums are a vote on the question in case, or a public vote of confidence in the government or 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 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.
Since 1944, the constitutional provision granting the president of Iceland the right to veto legislation has been invoked three times and has twice led to a national referendum.

In 2012, an advisory national referendum on a new constitution was called by parliament. In the referendum, 73% voted in favor of a provision 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, parliament has yet to ratify the constitution bill or use it as a basis for a new one, even though 67% voted in favor of the bill. 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. In 2018, the cabinet of Jakobsdóttir – claiming that the authority for changing the constitution lies in the parliament, not the people – announced a three-year process for reviewing limited aspects of the constitution, as though the 2012 national referendum on a new constitution had not taken place. The review is supposed to cover the transfer of state powers, national referendums, natural resources and environmental protections. The outcome of this review remains to be seen.

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.

Forsætisráðuneytið. Endurskoðun stjórnarskrár 2018-2021. https://www.stjornarradid.is/lisalib/getfile.aspx?itemid=e6329b3e-1a68-11e9-942f-005056bc4d74 Retrieved 16th October 2019.

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:
There are no provisions for legally binding referendums or popular initiatives at the federal level in Mexico so far. Though, in October 2019, the Mexican Senate approved a constitutional change giving citizens the possibility to vote in a recall referendum. This could result in a president and provincial governors being recalled after half a term. The House of Deputies, in which MORENA holds a clear majority, still has to approve the new regulation. In general, Mexican citizens are 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, but the new government adopted the decision.
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.

Government-initiated referendums, which are often binding, are used to address questions such as the introduction of a new electoral system (1992 and 1993), reviewing the electoral system (2011), and making changes to the design of the national flag (2015–2016).

After the 2017 election, Labour and its minor coalition partners (the Greens and NZ First) agreed to hold a referendum on the legalization of recreational cannabis at the 2020 election. This referendum is going ahead, along with a second referendum on the End of Life Choice bill. While the government claims that the result will be binding, legal experts have questioned whether this can be guaranteed given the referendum is being held during the 2020 election, at which point a new parliament will have been elected. The National Party has not ruled out ignoring the cannabis referendum result if it comes to government in 2020. However, it may be difficult for them to ignore the End of Life referendum result as that bill has been initiated by their intended coalition partner, the ACT party.
Cooke, Explainer: The cannabis referendum and why it isn’t binding, Stuff (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/112525322/explainer-the-cannabis-referendum-and-why-it-isnt-binding)
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. In 2019, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang and President Moon again proposed to hold a referendum on constitutional revision, suggesting that people be allowed to vote on the proposal during the April 2020 general election.
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 2008, 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. Article 92 of the Spanish Constitution stipulates that political decisions of special importance may be submitted to all Spanish citizens via an advisory referendum. The referendum should be announced by the king on the president of the government’s proposal, with the authorization of the congress. Since 2012, Catalan nationalist forces have pushed for a referendum on independence only in Catalonia. However, this would be illegal according to the Spanish constitution. The “referendum” of 1 October 2017 did not have the minimal democratic guarantees, as defined by institutions such as the Venice Commission, neither in the manner in which it was called, the voting process itself or its outcome. Above all, there was no register of voters, nor any “no” campaign.

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 2019. 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 the PSOE government.
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.
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 himself became a victim of the referendum process, 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.

Initially, the president was the only figure entitled to call a referendum. Therefore, the practice was perceived as being an instrument of the executive rather than a genuine democratic tool, since popular initiatives are not possible under the referendum system. Since 2015, 20% of the members of parliament, if supported by 10% of the electorate, have been able to call a national referendum. However, the rules and procedures are very restrictive. This 20% threshold was met for the first time in June 2019, when a group of opponents to the privatization of Aéroports de Paris decided to resist the decision by the parliamentary majority. However, after three months of political canvassing, only 800,000 signatures had been collected out of the 4.7 million needed by March 2020 to allow the organization of a referendum. This cumbersome procedure has been criticized by the Yellow Vest movement, which has advocated (without success) amending the constitution to allow for genuinely popular initiatives enabling popular decision-making on a broad range of subjects.

Local referendums can be organized when municipalities are scheduled to be merged, or for local issues at a mayor’s initiative. However, very few have taken place, and participation rates have been very low. In general, direct public involvement in policymaking is rare, and functions poorly due to public authorities’ reluctance to accept such influence, as well as the lack of an effective culture of public participation. The Notre-Dame des Landes airport saga is a case in point. After more than 30 years of high-conflict deliberations, protests and a positive (but only consultative) referendum in 2016, the government finally decided to withdraw the project in January 2018.
According to the 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 exceed 30%. At the national level, citizens do not have the right to initiate a referendum. However, if more than 500,000 citizens support a change to the constitution, parliament can approve a revision, which then must pass a nationwide referendum. Citizens can initiate referendums at the county level, but such initiatives are subject to approval by the County Council and are rare.

A consultative national referendum with two ballot measures was held at the same time as the European Parliament elections in May 2019. Proposed by President Iohannis in an attempt to curb the Social Democratic Party’s assault on the judiciary, the measures involved a ban on amnesty and pardons for corruption offenses, and the government adopting emergency ordinances in the field of justice and criminal policy. Despite being challenged by the Social Democratic Party and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats, the resolutions were soundly accepted by the electorate. Over 85% of the 7.9 million ballots cast were in favor of the measures and turnout was above 25%, thus validating the results. Following the results, the president convened the political parties for consultation on implementing the results.
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 reform proposals, the Remkes Commission has seriously considered putting the issue of a binding referendum back the political agenda. To date, only one political party (D66) has adopted this advice, using the issue as an element of the party’s 2020 election campaign.
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
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).

However, the situation appears to developing in positive direction, with several political parties expressing willingness to incorporate public consultations and deliberation in political decision-making. A natural experiment is taking place with the German-speaking community (“Ostbelgien,” the smallest of the three communities, after the Flemish and French-speaking) setting up a permanent citizen assembly (Bürgerversammlung), which will co-operate with its parliament. The citizen assembly will be composed of randomly selected members of the population, in the spirit of the G1000 initiative, and will be involved in policymaking. Various similar participatory and/or deliberative schemes, less ambitious at this stage, are also being debated and prepared by the other federated entities.

Another positive evolution has been the wave of weekly demonstrations initiated by “climate express” and “coalition climate,” which have been supported by young students. These demonstrations brought environmental concerns to the forefront, influencing the recent electoral debates and boosting the vote share of Belgium’s various green parties (although more so in the French-speaking part of the country). This development reflects pre-existing dynamics, mainly driven by bottom-up citizen (e.g., the G1000) or academic (e.g., re-bel) initiatives.
About the ‘G1000’ deliberative process (and linked initiatives): http://www.g1000.org/en/

About re-bel: https://rethinkingbelgium.eu/



Brussels Government agreement: see Axe 3, paragraph 3 of the « Déclaration de politique générale commune au Gouvernement de la Région de Bruxelles-Capitale et au Collège réuni de la Commission communautaire commune. LÉGISLATURE 2019-2024 »

Walloon Government agreement: see Chapter 21 of the “Déclaration de politique régionale pour la Wallonie, 2019-2024”
The Chilean constitution is one of the most restrictive on the topic of direct democracy (e.g., referendums, 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 referendums at the municipal level officially exists, but these referendums are not necessarily legally binding and may be ignored by the authorities.
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. A referendum can be called if demanded by 2% of the voting population, but any such results are non-binding for local and prefectural assemblies. Despite the legal strictures, referendums have played an increasingly important role in Japan’s regional politics in recent years. In February 2019, citizens in Okinawa prefecture voted against the construction of a new U.S. base to replace an older one. However, the national government intends to proceed with its plans.

A National Referendum Law took effect in 2010. Since 2018, the minimum age for voting on constitutional amendments has been 18. 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. Practical issues have thus come to the fore. A revised referendum law was planned for 2019, but was delayed due to resistance by the opposition.
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

Okinawa: Tokyo to overrule referendum on US base, BBC News, 25 February 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-47353504

Referendum Law Revision Passage during Current Session Very Unlikely, Nippon.com, 20 November 2019, https://www.nippon.com/en/news/yjj2019112000995/referendum-law-revision-passage-during-current-session-very-unlikely.html
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 being a 2015 referendum seeking to end 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 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.

Petitions can be submitted to the Assembly of the Republic. This does not allow for referendums, but it does create more opportunity for public input into political decisions.
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


It may seem strange at a time when UK politics is almost completely determined by the result of a referendum, but formally referendums 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. Referendums 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, referendums in the United Kingdom have a de facto influence on policy decisions, but this is rather ad hoc.

Referendums 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 doing so, hope to silence their critics for good. Tony Blair’s devolution referendums in 1997 and 1998 or the 1975 referendum which was used by then Prime Minister Wilson to counter opponents of the European Union in his party are prominent examples, as was the Brexit referendum campaign. The 2010 – 2015 coalition government’s referendum in 2011 on an alternative voting system to replace “first-past-the-post” was called at the insistence of the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, but (successfully) opposed by the Conservatives.

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 was loudly pushed by the People’s Vote initiative, but has been strongly resisted, including by the leaders of the two main parties and many members of parliament. The main reason cited by many opponents of a second referendum, even by those hostile to Brexit, was that it would be undemocratic to ignore the result of the 2016 poll. The Labour Party, however, changed its position for the 2019 general election by promising to offer a second referendum if it won the election, but its ambivalence on the matter nevertheless confused voters.

The conduct of the 2016 EU referendum elicited legal action regarding the use of personal data and breaches of spending limits, as well as allegations of Russian influence. However, there is little evidence these incidents significantly altered the outcome. The bruising experience of the 2016 referendum and the lack of constitutional clarity on how to respond to the results of referendums make further resort to them unlikely at the UK level, although there is clear grassroots support for a further plebiscite on Scottish independence in Scotland.
Citizens have no effective opportunity to vote on issues of importance to them through a legally binding measure.
The constitution makes no provision for referenda 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.The vote was 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. Local referenda are also held when communities wish to become municipalities or change their status.

No update has been released on a draft law on e-petitions that was discussed by a parliamentary committee in October 2018.
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 area 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 had miscalculated the consequences of the referendum’s outcome. This unfortunate, if not awkward, handling of the referendum has diminished the prospect of citizens being able to vote on issues of importance to them at least in the near future.
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 referendums 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 into 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 held, but only on unique occasions – the last one was held in 1994 and was a vote on EU membership – and are consultative in nature (as per the constitution), though they are treated as binding in practice. Some referendums have been held at the local level, mostly with respect to decisions to merge or fuse municipalities.
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.

Turkey’s constitutional system has an appropriate framework for participatory public policymaking. However, there is no comprehensive policy framework or pre-defined set of principles. ICT-based participatory mechanisms, such as “common sense,” are being promoted.

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. However, these units are not wholly effective, as they depend upon the goodwill of the local mayor, and some councils only exist on paper and have yet to be established in practice. Law 6360, in effect since 2014, has 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.
World Justice Project, Rule of Law Index 2019, https://worldjusticeproject.org/sites/default/files/documents/ROLI-2019-Reduced. pdf (accessed 1 November 2019)

H. Akay, Yerel Yönetimlerde Katılımcı Mekanizmalar ve Süreçler, Istanbul: Türkiye Avrupa Vakfı, 2016.

E. B. Karakitapoğlu, Public participation in EIA process of small hydro power plants (HES) in Turkey, University of Uppsala, 2015.

S. 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 (accessed 1 November 2018)

H. Yerlikaya, Kamu Politikalarının Oluşturulmasında Katılımcılık ve Bilgi ve İletişim Teknolojileri, Ankara, 2015.
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