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 European Union. While political elites promised voters that the European Union would renegotiate the terms of this agreement, the European Union 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 2022: Citizens’ response to a non-responsive government:
The Case of the Swiss Initiative on Mass Immigration, unpublished manuscript.

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. No instruments of popular decision-making existed at the local level until recently; however, in 2021, Saeima approved the draft Law on Local Government Referenda which has yet to be implemented.

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, the parliamentary procedure allows for petitions that have gathered 10,000 signatures to move to the parliament for consideration. Under this instrument, 84 proposals have been forwarded to parliament and other institutions since 2011; 50 of these were successful in one way and another, and 12 have been turned into laws or regulations.

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. Since then, there have been a number of attempts to trigger the procedure, but not enough signatures were gathered.

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.
1. CVK (Central Voting Commission): Voters’ Initiatives and Collection of Signatures, Available at: https://www.cvk.lv/en/voters-initiatives/collection-of-signatures, Last accessed: 04.01.2022

2. Social Initiative Platform ManaBalss.lv, List of Signed Initiatives, Available at (in Latvian): https://manabalss.lv/page/progress, Last accessed: 04.01.2022

3. CVK (Central Voting Commission) (2011) Referendum on Dissolution of the 10th Saeima, https://www.cvk.lv/en/referendums/referendum-on-dissolution-of-the-10th-saeima-2011, Last assessed: Last accessed: 04.01.2022

4. Saeima (2021) Saeima supports the draft law on local government referendums in the second reading, Available (in Latvian): https://www.saeima.lv/lv/aktualitates/saeimas-zinas/25466-lems-par-mihaila-barisnikova-uznemsanu-latvijas-pilsoniba.rss.rss.rss.rss/30242-saeima-otraja-lasijuma-atbalsta-vietejo-pasvaldibu-referendumu-likuma-projektu, Last accessed: 04.01.2022
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 in terms of attracting sufficient number of voters (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 three citizens’ initiatives secured the necessary signatures to be debated during the 2012 to 2016 parliament. One initiative proposed to control alcohol consumption, a second proposed a ban on use of electricity supplied from the newly built nuclear power plant in Belarus, and the third was related to the use of foreign-language characters in official documents. No initiatives have been attempted since 2016. 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.

While local referendums have taken place regularly and there have been some attempts of collecting signatures for national referendums, only eight referendums have been called since Slovak independence in 1993, the last in 2015 (Szekeres 2021). In spring the of 2021, Hlas-sociálna demokracia, a splinter party from Smer-SD, led by former Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini and other opposition parties, collected 585,000 signatures for a referendum on shortening the current term of the government. In line with earlier decisions, the Constitutional Court in July 2021 declared such a referendum on snap elections unconstitutional (Giba/ Bujňák 2021). In another attempt to mobilize against the government, Smer-SD, at the end of 2021, was considering an initiative for a referendum on the controversial Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States which would allow the United States to use the military airports of Malacky-Kuchyňa and Sliač, or other agreed-on facilities and premises.
Giba, M., V. Bujňák (2021): Referendum on early elections: The case of Slovakia in the European context, in: European Studies: The Review of European Law, Economics and Politics 8(1): 39-66.

Szekeres, E. (2021): Who Wants to Vote? The Spectacular Failure of Referenda in Slovakia, in: BalkanInsight, May 17 (https://balkaninsight.com/2021/05/17/who-wants-to-vote-the-spectacular-failure-of-referenda-in-slovakia/).
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, one referendum was held in July 2021. Voters in the referendum overwhelmingly rejected a new act relating to waterside areas, with 86% voting against the act. The referendum revolved around provisions in the new law, which would determine the development of coastal, lakeside and riverside areas. It was initiated by a grassroots movement largely comprising of NGOs, which objected to provisions that they say would lead to too much development, restrict public access to waterside areas and potentially jeopardize groundwater.
Voters Strongly Reject Water Development Act in Referendum, Total Slovenia News, STA, 12 July 2021, available at
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 list of eligible referendums issues is restrictive, fiscal/tax issues cannot be addressed, political and judicial nominations are also excluded. If backers of a referendum collect a minimum of 200,000 signatures in support of the referendum, they can address parliament to call for a referendum. If 400,000 signatures are presented, parliament is obliged to call a referendum but can, within certain limits, 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, 2015 and 2016, turnout levels were not high enough to make the results obligatory for the parliament.

Requirements for local referendums are less stringent than those for national referendums, 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 no opportunities for Canadians to make binding decisions on matters of importance to them through citizens-initiated referendums. Under the Canadian system, citizens do not have the opportunity to take binding decisions on issues of importance to them or vote on issues through a legally binding measure. There are no legally binding referendums. All referendums in Canada require legislation.
The same is true in the provinces. In 2021, a Citizen Initiative Act was being debated by the Alberta legislature. “Should the Citizen Initiative Act pass, prodding the government to create a new law or amend an existing one, or make a provincial policy change, would require a voter to gather written signatures within 90 days from 10% of the province’s electors – about 280,000 people” (French, 2021).
Janet French. 2021. “Proposed law could see Alberta voters petition government for change,” CBC News, March 16. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/proposed-law-could-see-alberta-voters-petition-governments-for-changes-1.5952191
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%. 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 or the 2020 referendum which confirmed the decision to reduce the number of parliamentarians. Consultative referendums were promoted in October 2017 by the Lombardy and Veneto regions, to increase 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.
Referendums exist as an institution in Sweden, but in practice almost never occur at the national level, and happen quite rarely at the regional/municipal level (for a list of all the referendums in Sweden, see https://www.val.se/val-och-folkomrostningar/folkomrostningar.html).

There are two kinds of referendums at the national level, advisory and constitutional. At the subnational level, all referendums are advisory. All six referendums at the national level have been advisory (Valmyndigheten, 2021). The last referendum took place in 2003, when citizens decided to opt out of the euro area (Sveriges Riksdag, 2021). The outcomes of referendums are never binding in Sweden. However, it is customary that all parties commit themselves to honoring the results.
Sveriges Riksdag. (Parliament of Sweden). 2021). “Folkomröstning.” https://www.riksdagen.se/sv/Sa-funkar-riksdagen/Demokrati/Folkomrostning/

Valmyndigheten. 2021. “Folkomröstningar.” https://www.val.se/val-och-folkomrostningar/folkomrostningar.html
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. The legal framework governing the organization and conduct of referendums in Croatia is extremely complicated, and is indeed one of the most demanding in Europe. In addition, the same rules do not apply to state and local referendums. In a local referendum, a proposed measure must receive more than 50% support of all registered voters in that locality or region. In a state referendum, a measure may be approved by the majority of voters who have participated in the referendum.
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. In December 2021, the right-wing political party Most began collecting signatures for a referendum on the abolition of COVID-19 certificates and the transfer of the power to adopt coronavirus-related measures from the Civil Protection Headquarters to the Croatian parliament, which – under the terms of the measure – could impose such measures only with a two-thirds majority. On December 22, the party announced that it had collected 400,000 signatures, amounting to more than 10% of the electorate, and that in January 2022 they would hand over all collected signatures to the Croatian parliament.
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 1,300 initiatives have been brought up, 56 of which have been submitted to the parliament for debate. At the time of writing, over 60 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 all 16 Länder (states) (Mehr Demokratie 2019). 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.

In states such as 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): Volksbegehrenesbericht 2019.
The constitution of Luxembourg has allowed referendums 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 referendums 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.

Referendums were held in 1919, 1937, 2005 and 2015. All four referendums resulted from parliamentary or governmental initiatives, including the one in 2005 that sought approval for the EU constitutional treaty.

The Local Government Act of 1988 (Article 35) addresses the issue of referendums at the municipal level. One-fifth of registered electors must demand a referendum; local referendums, 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.

Citizens can submit petitions (written in French, German or Luxembourgish) on the website of the Chamber of Deputies. To ensure that the issue underlying the petition is publicly debated in parliament, at least 4,500 signatures are required. If that threshold is passed, the petition will be discussed during a public debate, broadcast on ChamberTV and streamed on the parliament website. In 2021, 285 public petitions were submitted to the Chamber of Deputies, one of which was a petition asking for a referendum on the planned revision of the constitution. As the total number of valid signatures (7,413) was much less than 25,000 signatures required, the proposal to hold a referendum on the proposed revision of the constitution was not successful.
“Press release by the Prime Minister, Minister of State, on the result of the signature collection for a referendum on the proposal to revise Chapter VI of the Constitution.” Official elections website of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg (5 January 2022). https://elections.public.lu/en/actualites/2022/resultat-signatures-referendum.ht ml. Accessed 14 January 2022.

“The petition website of the Parliament.” Chambre des Députés. https://www.petitiounen.lu/en/. Accessed 14 January 2022.
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 500,000 voters back a referendum petition. In addition, a total of 100,000 voters can collectively submit a draft bill (“popular initiative”), which the Sejm then has to pass or reject. Since 2019, the parliamentary standing orders say such initiatives must be considered within six months of the constitution of a new parliament.

Since the 2015 elections, no national referendums have been held. However, various groups have used popular initiatives to submit draft bills to the Sejm. 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 November 2017, a “pro-life” initiative presented 830,000 signatures in favor of the “Shut Down Abortion” (Zatrzymaj aborcję) bill, which proposed banning abortions in all but severe cases of physical damage to the fetus. The strong public protests prompted by this proposal led the governing coalition to take a dilatory approach. It initially ignored the proposal, then sent it to the parliamentary committees for health, and social policy and family in April 2020, but has refrained from passing the proposed bill. In turn, a pro-choice initiative started to collect signatures in February 2021 to make abortion legal within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Controversies also rage over an initiative to limit sex education in schools. As with the ban on abortions, the government has so far confined itself to sending the proposed bill to a committee for further discussion.
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 citizens. 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, however, not binding for parliament, which has only the obligation to debate the proposals. Most citizen initiatives have not succeeded in becoming law.

In addition to direct democratic instruments at the national level, there is a wide array of similar instruments at state and local level. As recent research demonstrates, all three levels have come to experience a strong trend toward a more intense use of the instruments available, and increased levels of professionalization in drafting and launching proposals. According to the same source, about 8% of all the procedures that were started were successful, with major differences between different policy fields. At all levels, infrastructure clearly stands out as the most important field for direct democratic activities. Successful activities are, however, much more often observed at the lowest level.

While a possible extension of direct democracy has been on the agenda of the first Kurz government (ÖVP/FPÖ, 2017–2019), this agenda was largely lost during the second Kurz government (ÖVP/Green, 2019–2021), as the ÖVP became less ambitious. However, in November 2021, the Nationalrat voted to establish a “dialogue with the states” on the future of direct democracy in Austria.

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 2020 and 2021, 53 local and regional referendums were held in Czechia. The majority of the referendums on local issues took place alongside the 2020 regional and Senate elections, and the 2021 parliamentary elections.
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, and the 2013 Act on Referendum and Popular Initiative (Act CCXXXVIII/2013) have limited the scope for popular decision-making (Pállinger 2019). While 200,000 eligible citizens can initiate a national referendum, the result of which is binding on parliament, the set of issues exempt from referendums is rather broad and for a referendum to be valid more than 50% of all eligible citizens must participate. The collection of signatures can only begin after the validation of an initiative by the National Election Committee (NVB). The Hungarian constitution does not provide for any mandatory referendums. Parliament can schedule a national referendum on the initiative of the president, the government or citizens.

For the opposition, referendums could have become an important means of mobilizing support and expressing dissent with the Orbán governments. However, the government-controlled NVB has used its discretion to block almost all referendum initiatives by the opposition. The two exceptions that prove the rule are the opposition’s successful “NOlimpia” campaign in 2017 and the initiative for a vote on the proposed Budapest campus of the Shanghai-based Fudan University in 2021 (Inotai 2022). Local referendums took place with an average number of two per year during the 2010s, but were not held during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the restrictive stance of the NVB, national referendums have increasingly become an instrument for Orbán governments to mobilize popular support behind the government rather than a means of checks and balances. The “LGBTQ+ referendum” to be held together with the parliamentary elections on 3 April 2022 is one such example. The manipulative questions aim to win voter support for government parties. The government has also continued to carry out its annual “national consultations,” fake referendums that are based on letters to citizens with misleading and manipulated questions.
Inotai, E. (2022): Hungary Opposition Cheered by ‘Symbolic Victory’ on Referendum, in: BalkanInsights, January 21 (https://balkaninsight.com/2022/01/21/hungary-opposition-cheered-by-symbolic-victory-on-referendum/).

Pállinger, Z. T. (2019): Direct democracy in an increasingly illiberal setting: the case of the Hungarian national referendum, in: Contemporary Politics 25(1): 62-77 (https://doi.org/10.1080/13569775.2018.1543924).
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 right-center-left cabinet of Jakobsdóttir – claiming that the authority for changing the constitution rests with the parliament, not the people – announced a three-year process for reviewing limited aspects of the constitution, but nothing happened.

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) stipulating 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.

National Referendum (Þjóðaratkvæði). http://thjodaratkvaedi.is/2010. Accessed 7 February 2022.

The Constitutional Council. http://stjornlagarad.is/english/. Accessed 3 February 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.
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.

Article 6 of the current 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.” However, 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 to date.

Some minor political parties and actors, most vocally Direct Democracy Ireland, have called in recent years for representative democracy to be replaced by participatory democracy in Ireland and to allow citizens to petition for a referendum on any issue by collecting a certain number of signatures. The party’s high-water mark saw it obtain 1.5% of the votes cast in the 2014 European Parliament election. The 2012–14 constitutional convention discussed the question of popular initiatives and referendums, but did not make a recommendation on the issue.

Ireland has held nine referendums to date on European Union constitutional change, beginning with the accession referendum in 1972. Subsequent to 1987, following a High Court challenge to the ratification by parliament of the Single European Act, successive Irish governments have deemed it necessary to seek approval from the Irish people for any EU constitutional treaty change. Two of these referendums failed (the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008) before subsequently being reversed by the people in a second referendum. The last EU-related referendum was held in 2012 on the EU Fiscal Treaty.

The Citizens’ Assembly was established in 2016 to consider contentious issues of public policy including in relation to abortion, climate change and parliamentary reform. The assembly publishes reports on each topic and the government is required to respond in parliament. In May 2018, a referendum was held that saw an end to Ireland’s restrictive abortion rules as a direct result of the deliberations by the Citizens’ Assembly.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, The Referendum in Ireland, July 2012, available at http://www.environ.ie/en/LocalGovernment/Voting/PublicationsDocuments/FileDownLoad,1893,en.pdf

The Constitutional Convention’s concluding commentary is available here: https://www.constitution.ie/AttachmentDownload.ashx?mid=64bbfa68-89b9-e311-a7ce-005056a32ee4
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.

President López Obrador’s government has introduced measures of direct participation, advocating participatory democracy. In August 2021, the first official national referendum took place. Mexicans were asked to decide whether previous presidents should be investigated for suspected corruption, but voter turnout was very low, with only 7.11% of voters participating. The opposition criticized the referendum as an attempt by the president to distract the public from the shortcomings of his own government. Another referendum, a recall referendum for the president, was scheduled for March 2022. Although the measures so far are of disputable importance, the invention of participatory democracy in Mexico has enhanced citizens’ role making binding decisions.
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 (New Zealand Parliament n.d.). 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.

New Zealand’s two most recent referendums were held alongside the 2020 general election: on the End of Life Choice Act 2019 (which was passed with 65.1% of voters’ support) and the legalization of recreational cannabis use (which draw 48.4% in support, and was thus unsuccessful). The End of Life Choice Act 2019 gives people with a terminal illness the option of requesting an assisted death if two doctors agree that the person has less than six months to live. Parliament passed the End of Life Choice Act 2019, but the measure had to be passed via referendum in order to take effect. The cannabis referendum asked whether people agreed with the draft Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill, which outlined provisions to legalize and control cannabis for recreational use. The use of a referendum on this issue was the result of the Green Party’s deal to support the Labour government after the election. However, the “Yes” vote did not reach the 50% threshold, and the Labour government has indicated that it intends to respect the outcome of the referendum (MacManus 2020).
MacManus (2020) “Referendum results: Cannabis legalisation narrowly loses vote.” Stuff. https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/cannabis-referendum/123249113/referendum-results-cannabis-legalisation-narrowly-loses-vote

New Zealand Parliament (n.d.) What is a citizens-initiated referendum? https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/what-is-a-citizens-initiated-referendum/
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. 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.

In 2017, the Blue House 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. Figures released by the Blue House regarding the first two years of the policy indicate that almost 700,000 petitions were submitted (more than 800 petitions per day), that younger generations were far more engaged than their elders, and that the site was visited by almost 250,000 visitors per day. As of April 2020, the Blue House had posted responses to at least 80 petitions.
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)
“대한민국 청와대 (The Blue House).” 대한민국 청와대. Accessed January 18, 2022. https://www.president.go.kr/.
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.

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 legal 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. Neither of the two attempts at holding referendums (November 2014 and October 2017) had the minimal democratic guarantees, as defined by institutions such as the Venice Commission – whether in the manner in which they were called, in the voting process itself or in their outcomes. Above all, there was no register of voters, and there was not a “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, a growing number of local authorities, including Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona, have engaged in participatory budgeting since 2019. Between 1985 and 2021, local authorities requested permission for 164 popular consultations, but only 46 were ultimately authorized by the national government. 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 via petition. In 2019, a total of 1,357 petitions were filed, with most coming from Germany (203), Spain (164) and Italy (103).
Neutral (2021): La Línea de la Concepción: pretensiones de autonomía y una consulta popular, July 18th. Available at: https://www.newtral.es/consulta-popular-espana-la-linea-concepcion-autonomia/20210718/
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 is developing in the positive direction, with several political parties now openly pushing for the incorporation of public consultations and deliberation in political decision-making. An ambitious “citizen dialogue” (“Bürgerdialog”) system has been institutionalized within the German-speaking community (“Ostbelgien,” the smallest of the three communities, after the Flemish and French-speaking) via the creation of a permanent citizen assembly (Bürgerversammlung) and a citizen council (Bürgerrad), both of which closely cooperate with the Ostbelgien parliament. The citizen assembly is composed of randomly selected members of the population, in the spirit of the G1000 initiative, and is involved in policymaking on themes that are identified by the citizen council. Various similar participatory and/or deliberative schemes, though less ambitious and extensive at this stage, are beginning to be implemented in the other larger regions and communities. In the Brussels Capital region, for instance, some focused “deliberative committees” composed three-quarters of randomly selected citizens and one-quarter of regional members of parliament are being installed; they will produce specific recommendations that will be used to develop legislation.

Another positive evolution has been the wave of regular demonstrations initiated by “climate express” and “coalition climate,” which have been supported by high school pupils and by 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 – Rebuilding Belgium) 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”

https://democratie.brussels/pages/cd_open [official www pages of the Brussels Capital region “deliberative committees”]

https://www.buergerdialog.be/ [official www pages of the Ostbelgien “citizen dialogue”]
In present-day Latin America, the Chilean constitution is one of the most restrictive regarding direct democracy mechanisms (e.g., referendums, plebiscites and citizens’ initiatives). The penultimate 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 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.

As a result of the massive protests in 2019 and the subsequent agreement between the party elites to launch a new constitutional process (Acuerdo por la Paz Social y la Nueva Constitución), the Congress amended the constitution in order to allow for a national plebiscite on the elaboration of a new constitution, and further specified the composition of the institution that would be responsible for this task. In this plebiscite (the so-called entry plebiscite), which took place in October 2020, a great majority of voters supported the development of a new constitution by a constitutional convention elected especially for that purpose. By means of a further plebiscite (the so-called exit plebiscite) that will take place in 2022, Chile’s citizens will be able to decide whether the new constitutional text should replace the currently valid constitution, or whether the latter should instead remain in force. Both plebiscites have had and will have a binding character; while voluntary voting applied to the entry plebiscite, voting is expected to be compulsory for the exit plebiscite.

Although these plebiscites should be considered exceptional tools used in a special situation, the new constitution is expected to expand and strengthen direct-democracy mechanisms.
Claudia Zilla, Franziska F. N. Schreiber, The Constitutional Process in Chile. The South American Country Is Searching for a New Social Contract, SWP Comment 2020/C 17, 06.04.2020, doi:10.18449/2020C17, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/the-constitutional-process-in-chile, last accessed: 16 February 2022.
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, only the president was 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 nine months of political canvassing, only 1.09 million signatures had been collected out of the 4.7 million needed to allow the organization of a referendum. In acknowledging the failure of the initiative, the Constitutional Council expressed negative comments about the procedures associated with signatures’ collection. This cumbersome procedure has also been fiercely criticized by the Yellow Vest movement, which has advocated (without success) for a constitutional amendment that would allow genuinely popular initiatives and 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. As an example, the 2013 referendum on the creation of a unique territorial unit in the region of Alsace had a participation rate of 20.05% of the electorate, thus failing to reach the quorum of 25%. 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 and protests, and in spite of 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. No national referendums were undertaken during the period under review.
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
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 two percent 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. An amendment to the National Referendum Law passed in June 2021 makes it easier for citizens to vote, allowing them to cast their ballots in heavily-frequented places such as train stations and shopping centers.
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

Japan enacts revised referendum law in constitutional amendment push, Kyodo News, 11 June 2021, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2021/06/dc855d516e11-japan-enacts-revised-referendum-law-in-constitutional-amendment-push.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 referendums exists at national and local levels. However, while citizens can propose referendums, the referendum itself takes place only if there is agreement from political officeholders. In the case of national-level referendums, 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 referendums, but the local Municipal Assembly can decide whether to call these referendums or not.

In practice, referendums are rare in Portugal. There have been only three national referendums in Portugal since the transition to democracy, with the most recent having been held in 2007. Local referendums are also rare. There were two scheduled in 2020 (one of which was canceled due to the pandemic), the first to take place since 2012. Had both 2020 local referendums gone ahead, the total number since the return to democracy would have increased from five to seven.

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.

At the local level, Portugal has instituted a non-party-political mechanism, the Group of Citizen Electors (GCE) that enables groups of citizens to run for local-level offices. In this manner, there is, as stated above, “more opportunity for public input into political decisions.”
Borges, L. (2020), “Em 46 anos de democracia, só se realizaram cinco referendos locais,” Público, available online at: https://www.publico.pt/2020/08/17/politica/noticia/46-anos-democracia-so-realizaram-cinco-referendos-locais-1928198

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


artigo 48.º, n.º 1, da CRP e artigo 16.º, n.º 1, al. c
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, also at the 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 addition to profound political disputes, 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. However, there is clear grassroots support for a further plebiscite on Scottish independence, which – if it were to happen – would be limited to residents in Scotland, as was the 2014 referendum.
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.

Local referendums are held under the law when communities wish to become municipalities or change their status. However, the government and the parliament have proceeded to bypass the popular will and impose law reforms on local government. They have suspended the municipal and communal elections that were due in December 2021.
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.
2. Local government elections postponed until May 2024, Financial Mirror, 17 September 2021, https://www.financialmirror.com/2021/09/17/local-government-elections-postponed-until-may-2024/
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 on an austerity package, which was being negotiated with the European Union, destabilized the economy and negatively affected relations between Greece and its euro area partners.

In 2018, the then government provided local government authorities and citizens with the legal framework to launch local referendums, even on issues which were outside the remit of local authorities (Law 4555/2018). This legislation could have broadened opportunities for citizens to vote on issues of importance. However, given the over-politicized nature of local government elections in Greece and the deep cleavages within many municipal councils along national political party lines, it could also have destabilized political stability and policy implementation at the municipal level. The government that came to power in 2019 passed legislation to postpone the implementation of the clauses on local referendums.

The unfortunate, if not awkward, handling of the referendum of 2015 and the equally debatable attempt to promote referendums at the local level (even on non-local issues) have 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 on EU membership. Formally, referendums are strictly consultative, though they are treated as binding in practice. Referendums have been more frequently held at the local level, on issues like alcohol restrictions, the primary language of instruction at schools, and on mergers with/separation from other municipalities. Local governments must formally take the initiative in order for a local referendum to be held.
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 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 in the Assembly may be submitted to a referendum either directly by the president, or if the president has vetoed it. A number of ICT-based participatory mechanisms 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.
H. Yerlikaya. 2015. Kamu Politikalarının Oluşturulmasında Katılımcılık ve Bilgi ve İletişim Teknolojileri, Ankara

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