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A referendum is an instrument that allows citizens to take decisions about political subjects and laws by themselves. Citizens can use the facultative referendum to block laws that have been adopted by parliament and the popular initiative to put their own proposals to a vote. The obligatory referendum entails that certain decisions (for example, all changes in the constitution) always have to be made through a referendum. According to polls, about 70-80 percent of citizens across Western countries want an introduction of the initiative and the referendum.


Cornerstone of democracy


The referendum is a cornerstone of any modern democracy. Democracy literally means ’government by the people’. In a democracy, there is no authority above the citizens; the people are sovereign. Laws have authority because they are free agreements between the members of a legal-political community (the citizens) and the citizens were able to approve those laws in a certain way.

Popular sovereignty is not a guarantee in a representative system (without referendums). Citizens cannot do anything else except to hand over their right to decide to politicians for a number of years, who use that right as they see fit. In this way, laws that are not supported by the majority of citizens can easily be adopted. It is true that citizens have the option not to re-elect politicians during the following elections, however it is structurally possible that laws that go against the will of the people are adopted.


In a modern state, there are a lot of decisions and not all of them can be taken directly by the citizens. That is why we need a permanent group, a parliament, that has the mandate to make day-to-day decisions. However, if enough citizens raise their hand, the mandate should go back to the citizens, who then decide by themselves. Only in such a situation is popular sovereignty a reality.

The rules of referendums


From the principle of popular sovereignty, it follows that citizens must have the same possibilities through the referendum as elected politicians have in parliament. This means that the referendum outcome must be binding, it must be possible for citizens to put their own proposals to a vote (the popular initiative), there should be no minimal voter turnout thresholds (quorums)  and there should be no excluded topics. After all, the same goes for members of parliament.

Practical experience


A system as described above has been functioning in Switzerland and in about half of the US states for more than a century. Scientists have studied the results of this experience from all sides. In practice, a system of direct democracy appears to lead to, among others, a higher economic growth, somewhat lower taxes (but not dramatically lower), lower state expenditure and a lower tax evasion. Incidentally, human rights are not really threatened by direct democracy either.

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