Referendums and popular will: The democratic criticism of referendums

Special report: Referendums: In the name of democracy?
By Laurence Morel

Referendums have always been very controversial and the object of numerous criticisms. They are accused of producing “bad decisions,” threatening individual rights and those of minorities, aggravating conflicts by preventing compromises, weakening representative institutions… But the most destabilizing criticism of referendums, since it calls into question what is supposed to be their main attribute, concerns their strictly-speaking democratic potential. For essentially intrinsic reasons, the process would only allow a very imperfect expression of the popular will. The main arguments in this debate are reviewed: on the one hand, referendums are blamed for not producing a result approved by the majority of voters. This criticism refers to the discrepancy between people affected and people entitled to vote, to a tendency of referendums to freeze social choices, and, above all, to the minority effect of low turnout. On the other hand, there are arguments that question the ability of referendum outcomes to reflect the true preferences of the majority or that stress the difficulties in ensuring their implementation. The hypothesis argued here is that these various flaws can be relativized by comparing the performance of direct democracy with that of representative democracy, and they may be partly overcome by appropriate modalities, such as those relating to the issue, the campaign, or the role of parliament and authorities upstream and downstream of the vote. Although they give the floor to the people, referendums are not intrinsically democratic. Their democratic quality depends on variables linked to their practice. In many ways, the challenge today is to take referendums back from the hands of populists, showing that it is possible to make of them a use, if not perfectly democratic, at least “democratically correct.”


  • referendum
  • direct democracy
  • democracy
  • democratic theory
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