National level referendum frequencies worldwide by continent, with Switzerland singled out, 1792-2010

23 10 2012

On the national level direct democracy votes are on the rise worldwide. At c2d we document referendum votes since 1793 (see: However, during the last two decades, for the first time in history, Latin America as well as Europe have outnumbered Switzerland regarding the frequency of national referendums. For Europe we attribute this development to the fact that most East European countries have incorporated mechanisms of direct democracy into their new Constitutions after 1991. In Latin America we observe a ‘third wave’ of democratization leading to an increase of referendum votes.

Serdült, Uwe and Welp, Yanina (2012) Direct Democracy Upside Down, Taiwan Journal of Democracy, 8 (1), 69-92.

13 11 2011

In this TJD-article we document all national referendum votes preceded by a collection of signatures from citizens (bottom up referendums). For each case we note who initiated the signature collection: the government or president, political parties in the opposition, civil society organizations.

Direct democracy can thus fulfill three functions in a political system: a) concentration or maintenance of political power, b) party competition, c) citizen empowerment.

In a nutshell, we present four empirical patterns:

1) Worldwide, the number of bottom up referendums is increasing, however, they were applied in only twenty countries (at least once).

2) Historically speaking, this particular mechanism of direct democracy has been used mainly by political opposition parties, however, over time the institution starts to shift into the hands of civil society.

3) Bottom up referendums are oftentimes considered to be the ‘good’ ones that are in a way ‘healthy’ for a political system. However, roughly ten percent of them fulfill the function of a power concentration instrument and are organized rather from top-down, thus perverting the instrument (hence the title of the paper). Especially in Switzerland with a governmental coalition consisting of four political parties it is necessary to organize a citizens’ initiative or a referendum from time to time  in order to ascertain power and to be kept in the government.

4) On a worldwide scale referendum votes initiated by civil society organizations seem to have the highest success rates. Bottom up referendums initiated by civil society therefore seem to cover needs neither political parties in government nor in opposition seem to satisfy.