Referendums, Initiatives, Plebiscites and Minorities

Much of the contradiction and confusion that surrounds debates about direct democracy can be avoided if the underlying concept of direct democracy is clarified. Above all, it is necessary to distinguish between the different types of procedure – initiative, referendum, plebiscite – and the different forms they can take (see Typology). It makes little sense to lump all these different procedures together and talk about “direct democracy” without specifying it and as if it were a homogeneous concept.

Referendums and citizens’ initiatives are first and foremost direct-democratic institutions, making it possible that the political will of the people can be formed, expressed, and put into practice. They are instruments of political decision-making, but the quality and content of the decisions is not predetermined by them. The terms ‘referendum’ and ‘initiative’ refer to rules of decision-making, not to the substance of the decisions. And the quality of the decision-making process depends on the legal design of the procedure and on the extent to which the conditions of democracy are met. Referendums and citizens’ initiatives can be used to make “good” or “bad”, “conservative” or ”progressive” decisions, as well as decisions that are in favour or not of minorities and outsider groups.

A noticeable distinction exists between outsiders with voting rights and those without. That part of a population which remains permanently without voting rights is in a position of categorical inequality with respect to those parts that are made up of full-value citizens. Such outsider groups consist, for example, of certain non-national residents which exist in many countries; their exclusion from equal political rights is not compatible with the principle of democracy.

Citizen-initiated Referendums

Citizen-initiated referendums are instruments of control and opposition, intended to prevent change that a majority does not want. They may be used to prevent the rights of outsiders from being either reduced or expanded, but the decision to reduce (or expand) these rights lies with government and parliament.

The object of a referendum is a decision (bill) made by parliament (government); voters decide to either adopt or reject it.

For example: In Switzerland, a popular referendum was used to try to prevent an expansion of rights for same-sex couples – without success (popular vote on 5 June 2005). In the following year another popular referendum aimed to prevent a reduction of rights for foreigners and asylum seekers – also without success (popular vote on 24 September 2006). For some observers this referendum showed that “ordinary people” tend to make the wrong (xenophobic) decisions and that direct democracy is therefore a dangerous or bad idea. They failed to see that in this particular case the referendum was actually an attempt by citizens to stop tougher laws passed by parliament.

In any case, people sometimes make wrong decisions, be it in a democratic or autocratic regime. Only in a democracy people can correct their erroneous decisions by themselves. In a democracy only self-imposed limits, decided by the whole people, are legitimate, otherwise arguments for limiting direct democracy become arguments against democracy as such.

It is noteworthy that the rights of a minority with voting rights (in this case homosexuals) were expanded, whereas those of minorities without voting rights (foreigners and asylum seekers) were diminished. However, both decisions were made in parliament and the popular referendum could only be used to challenge these decisions. In both cases, the majority of those who voted in the referendum endorsed the decision of parliament.

Citizens’ Initiatives

Citizens’ initiatives, unlike referendums, can be used to directly reduce (or expand) the rights of outsiders. A notorious example is the popular initiative to ban the building of minarets, which was adopted on 29 November 2009. Quite expectedly, this vote was interpreted by some politicians and journalists as an example of the “tyranny of the majority” and was used to denounce the negative effects of direct democracy or direct democracy tout court.

The object of a citizens’ initiative is a proposal that has been made by a group of citizens, not government.

Another example was the popular initiative “for a democratic naturalization procedure”. Adoption of the initiative would have made it a legal option to decide by popular vote about the citizenship application of a particular individual, thereby disregarding the fact that such a procedure had been declared unconstitutional by the Federal Court. In the campaigns for and against this initiative legal arguments played an exceptionally important role. The initiative was not adopted and the “People” was congratulated for its wise decision; in this case nobody was denouncing direct democracy as a “tyranny of the majority”.

However, in neither of the two examples does it make sense to decry or praise “direct democracy” as a cause of the decision in question; the causes of these decisions must be found elsewhere. The citizens’ initiative is an instrument for expressing the general will, but not a cause for it. The problem lies not with direct democracy itself, but with the abuse of power. The weaker a democracy, the more accentuated this problem becomes.

Two questions arise: What makes the abuse of power by means of (direct) democracy possible? Why did abuse of power occur in the first case but not in the second? The first question is about the limits of (direct) democracy. In the Swiss case, the right to validate initiatives lies with parliament; even under the existing rules the Swiss parliament could have invalidated the initiative to ban minarets. The majority of the parliament, however, decided to stick to the traditional interpretation of these rules and to put up with the possible negative consequences (violation of fundamental democratic principles which are expressed in the Federal Constitution). The second question is about analysing the specific causes that led to the (arguably) discriminatory majority decision concerning the minaret ban and comparing this case with the one on naturalization where there was no abuse of power.


Plebiscites can only be initiated by representative authorities, not by citizens. Obviously, plebiscites are not made to empower citizens. They are not part of direct democracy as defined in this Guide to Direct Democracy (see What does modern direct democracy mean?). Governments use plebiscites to consult citizens or to seek their support and acclaim. Governments can use them to make “hard decisions”, for example against outsiders, and the voters are expected to legitimize these decisions. While referendums and initiatives are used regularly, governments use plebiscites only sporadically, trying to minimize the risk that the voters would reject their proposal.

The object of a plebiscite is a government proposal.

It should be clear by now that referendums (tools for citizens) should not be confused with plebiscites (tools for those in power). However, the importance of this distinction needs to be repeated over and over again as long as it is still common practice not to make it, be it in political science or in political debates and everyday discussions.

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