Issue Briefs

Are Referenda Tools of Democracy?

Are Referenda Tools of Democracy?

Michael Binyon

October 20, 2016

Is there anything more democratic than a referendum? It allows a government to consult the entire electorate on any major issue. It means that each citizen has a say on constitutional changes or decisions that will change a country’s life. It produces a result that reflects the public mood more clearly than any decision taken by a small group of elected parliamentarians.

A blunt instrument

In fact, a referendum is far from democratic. It can be used by populists and dictators to destroy democracy. It is a blunt instrument that reduces complex issues to a simple “yes-no” question.  It can paralyse government decision-making, and throw national policies off course. And, unlike parliamentary legislation, it is usually irreversible.


A referendum is a paradox. It is increasingly being used by governments reluctant to take responsibility for major decisions to shirk their duty. But it often produces results that make it much more difficult to deal with the outcome. The fact is that whatever the question asked by a referendum, the answer is always the same: a punch on the nose for the government. Voters see referendums as a cost-free way of voicing protest, a wake-up call to express general discontent and a chance for the have-nots to thumb their noses at the establishment.

Bad results

Three governments have recently found to their cost the disastrous result of entrusting a major issue to a referendum: Britain, Hungary and Colombia.  In each case, the result was the opposite of what had been expected. In Britain’s case, the referendum in June on continued membership of the European Union produced a clear majority for Brexit – a British exit from the EU. No one, including those leading the campaign to leave, foresaw the result; and neither government nor opposition had any plan on what to do next. The referendum produced the worst crisis in British political history for a generation, led to the resignation of the prime minister, a sharp fall in the value of the currency, and massive uncertainty over Britain’s political and economic future.

Hungary example 

In Hungary, the right-wing government of Viktor Orban was hoping to use a referendum to persuade voters to endorse its tough line with Brussels on taking in quotas of refugees. Orban received the endorsement he was seeking – with a vote of 98 per cent rejecting the loaded question “Do you agree that the European Union should have the power to impose the settlement on non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the consent of the National Assembly of Hungary?” But most voters stayed at home, sensing perhaps that the vote was not really about migrants but intended to strengthen him in his quarrel with the EU. Because of the low turnout, the referendum was invalid – although the government proclaimed it as a political and moral victory.


In Colombia, the referendum on the peace deal with the Marxist Farc rebels produced even greater consternation. The government of Juan Manuel Santos has just spent the past four years negotiating a final end to the 50-year civil war and produced a settlement that promised to open the way to peace, general disarmament and the re-integration of the former guerrillas in Colombian society. A signing ceremony with the Farc leader was witnessed by the United Nations Secretary-General and world leaders. And then, a few days later, the deal was put to the people in a referendum. They voted against it.

Colombians and outsiders were shocked. Did this mean a return to war? Was the deal a step too far, especially for those who believed the rebel leaders should pay a price for the thousands they had kidnapped, tortured or killed? Could the result be ignored and the peace deal go ahead anyway?

Direct democracy for dictators

The fact is that across the globe voters have been rejecting government advice and using their votes as a protest. In the age of general political rage, direct democracy is a risk. It is only dictators who can guarantee the result they want – and indeed plebiscites were a favourite device used by Hitler and Mussolini to show the world that they had nationwide support. After the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler held a referendum on the merger of the offices of chancellor and president, thus giving himself absolute power (unsurprisingly, some 90 per cent voiced approval). He also held further plebiscites after re-occupying the Rhineland in 1936 and the annexation of Austria in 1938. Because of their misuse by the Nazis, plebiscites were banned in Germany after the war.

Voters vent their rage

Even in democratic societies, referendums are an unreliable decision-making vehicle. Voters tend to use them as a receptacle for their grievances, as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, found earlier this year. He held a referendum on the economic deal between the EU and Ukraine. The treaty had been agreed by the government, ratified by all other EU states and was 2,135 pages long. The Dutch rejected it, not because they had read all the small print, but because they were railing against weak government, against EU dogma and against the eastward expansion of the union. Rutte called the result “disastrous”. President Putin was delighted and called it a “truly democratic act”.

Italy’s turn

By the end of the year there will have been eight major referendums. The next will be Matteo Renzi’s attempt to secure backing for his reforms in Italy. But the Italian prime minister has found a solid coalition lining up against him, largely put together by ambitious politicians trying to engineer his fall and their return to power. If he loses in December, he will probably lose office, and Italy’s crucial economic reforms will come to a halt.

Switzerland is different

Referendums can work in small democracies with a tradition of consultation. Switzerland is the prime example. Every year voters are asked their views on dozens of issues. It seems to work well – though it has encouraged populists to take a hard line on issues such as immigration. It works less well in larger states: California attaches “propositions” to its presidential and congressional elections, and the results often lead to confusion and paralysis for the state government, which finds key policies rejected, especially on taxes and spending.

Controversial issues would lose

It is also clear that sensitive social questions rarely win approval if put to a referendum. No country has held a referendum on the abolition of capital punishment, as it would almost certainly be lost. It would also cause big social tensions if a referendum were held in Europe or America on whether a halt should be placed on the building of any more mosques; in the present climate that too would be lost. And the proposal by the present Australian prime minister to hold a referendum on gay marriage, an issue that caused him considerable difficulty during recent election campaign, suggests he is determined it should fail.

Elected representatives should do their job

If legislators run away from the decisions they are elected to take, they will find it hard to defy the result of a vote put to the people. Some British parliamentarians argue that the British parliament – which overwhelmingly supports continued membership of the European Union – could ignore the Brexit vote and refuse to pass the legislation needed to leave the EU. But that would cause a political furore and has been ruled out by Theresa May’s government.

Can you live with the unexpected results of a referendum?

Sometimes referendums can be reversed by holding another one. Ireland and Denmark both changed their views after European legislation was cosmetically changed to mollify opponents and a second referendum was held. But this looks like a defiance of the people’s will. The moral, governments are beginning to realise, is do not hold a referendum if you cannot live with the result. Far better to enact legislation, and then see whether voters support it during a general election than risk a procedure that can end up subverting rather than enhancing democracy.

Michael Binyon is the Senior Adviser to the GPI. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.  


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.