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More or less equality? Direct democracy in Europe from 1990 to 2015

Mehr oder weniger Gleichheit? Direkte Demokratie in Europa von 1990 bis 2015


Within the last decades, western democracies have experienced a rise of inequality, with the gap between lower and upper class citizens steadily increasing and a widespread sentiment of growing inequalities also in the political sphere. Against this background, and in the context of the current “crisis of democracy”, democratic innovations such as direct democratic instruments are discussed as a very popular means to bring citizens back in. However, research on direct democracy has produced rather inconsistent results with regard to the question of which effects referenda and initiatives have on equality. Studies in this field are often limited to single countries and certain aspects of equality. Moreover, most existing studies look at the mere availability of direct democratic instruments instead of actual bills that are put to a vote. This paper aims to take a first step to fill these gaps by giving an explorative overview of the outputs of direct democratic bills on multiple equality dimensions, analyzing all national referenda and initiatives in European democracies between 1990 and 2015. How many pro- and contra-equality bills have been put to a vote, how many of those succeeded at the ballot, and are there differences between country groups? Our findings show that a majority of direct democratic bills was not related to equality at all. Regarding the successful bills, we detect some regional differences along with the general tendency that there are more pro- than contra-equality bills. Our paper sheds new light on the question if direct democracy can serve as an appropriate means to complement representative democracy and to shape democratic institutions in the future. The potential of direct democracy in fostering or impeding equality should be an important criterion for the assessment of claims to extend decision-making by citizens.


In den letzten Jahrzehnten ist in westlichen Demokratien eine steigende Ungleichheit zu beobachten, die sich durch eine stetig wachsende Schere zwischen Arm und Reich sowie ein Gefühl zunehmender Ungleichheiten auch im politischen Raum auszeichnet. Vor diesem Hintergrund und im Kontext der derzeitigen „Krise der Demokratie“ werden demokratische Innovationen wie direktdemokratische Instrumente als vielversprechende Maßnahme diskutiert, um Bürger*innen zurück in das politische Geschehen zu bringen. Allerdings hat die Forschung zu direkter Demokratie inkonsistente Ergebnisse bezüglich der Frage hervorgebracht, welche Effekte Referenden und Initiativen auf Gleichheit haben. Studien in diesem Bereich sind oft auf einzelne Länder und bestimmte Aspekte von Gleichheit beschränkt. Außerdem betrachten die meisten existierenden Studien lediglich die Verfügbarkeit direktdemokratischer Instrumente statt der Gesetzentwürfe, die tatsächlich zur Abstimmung gestellt werden. Dieser Artikel zielt darauf ab, einen ersten Schritt hin zur Schließung dieser Lücken zu unternehmen, indem ein explorativer Überblick über die Ergebnisse direktdemokratischer Gesetzentwürfe für verschiedene Dimensionen von Gleichheit gegeben wird. Analysiert werden dazu alle nationalen Referenden und Initiativen in europäischen Demokratien zwischen 1990 und 2015. Wie viele Gesetzentwürfe für mehr oder weniger Gleichheit wurden zur Abstimmung gestellt, wie viele davon waren an der Stimmurne erfolgreich und gibt es Unterschiede zwischen Ländergruppen? Eine Mehrheit der direktdemokratischen Entwürfe weist keinen Bezug zu Gleichheit auf. Bezüglich der erfolgreichen Entwürfe finden wir regionale Unterschiede sowie eine generelle Tendenz von mehr Entwürfen, die Gleichheit fördern als solche, die sie verringern. Unser Artikel wirft neues Licht auf die Frage, ob direkte Demokratie als ein adäquates Mittel dienen kann, um repräsentative Demokratie zu ergänzen und die demokratischen Institutionen der Zukunft zu gestalten. Das Potenzial direkter Demokratie, Gleichheit entweder zu fördern oder einzudämmen, sollte in der Debatte zu Volksentscheiden ein wichtiges Kriterium sein.

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  1. This increased call for direct democratic instruments can—for example—be observed with populist (right wing) parties throughout European democracies (Bowler et al. 2017). However, it is also prominent in other parts of society and shared by parties and supporters from different political backgrounds.

  2. The term minority is here used in the sense of Lewis (2013). He defines the term as follows: “groups that are or have been historically targeted by the majority. […] These […] include minority groups defined by race, color, religion, ethnicity, and national origin. More recently other groups have also gained recognition as valid ‘political minorities’, including groups defined by their sexual orientation, gender identity, age, gender, and disabilities” (Lewis 2013, p. 13). The criterion of discrimination is vital at this point, as there are of course minority groups that are highly influential and therefore cannot count as “clearly disadvantaged”.

  3. We focus on inhabitants instead of citizens to include all people living in a country and thereby being affected immediately by its law-making. While we do not want to challenge the concept of citizenship—which implies giving citizens more rights than non-citizens—, outputs of direct democratic decisions could increase the legal gap between those two groups even further as non-citizens are (on the national level) not eligible to vote on issues concerning them. Therefore, we follow Lewis (2013) in including them as one of those minority groups that might be disadvantaged in direct democratic votes.

  4. Applied to our context, this means that a given bill that is brought to a popular vote can eventually promote a more equal society, even if it proposes an unequal treatment of particular social groups—depending on the social situation. For example, let us consider a hypothetical bill proposal on a female quota for management positions. Here, we have two groups, namely men and women, who are generally unequal with regard to their presence in—well paid—management positions. A female quota now gives women an advantage over men when applying for respective jobs and can, therefore, be considered an unequal treatment. However, given the fact that men are generally overrepresented in management positions, such a quota aims to lead to a more equal society in the sense that the percentage of men and women working in management positions would approximate. As a result, the political output would be equality-promoting in that the bill aims to improve the job situation of a disadvantaged group—here, women in comparison to men—in management positions. Based on this reasoning, we consider direct democratic bills that propose measures aiming to make society more equal as equality-promoting (or pro-equality). As illustrated, this can be the case for both bills that propose equal or unequal treatment of certain social groups, depending on the context.

  5. For classic works and details on the median voter theorem see Black (1948) and Downs (1957).

  6. Based on this reasoning, the presence of direct democratic instruments should also result in less government spending in general because all kinds of spendings for different client groups (not only low SES citizens) that are not in line with median voter preferences should be harder to enforce as compared to a purely representative system (cf. Töller and Vollmer 2013, p. 307; Vatter 2007, p. 94).

  7. This is a rather classical classification of country groups within Europe—with the exception of Switzerland which we look at separately because of its clear special status regarding direct democracy.

  8. The authors not only look at welfare spending but also include other aspects such as total government spending, government efficiency, or level of corruption in their analysis (Blume et al. 2009; Blume and Voigt 2012).

  9. The results show that countries with national initiatives tend to spend more on welfare (Blume et al. 2009, p. 431; Blume and Voigt 2012, pp. 302–303), which can be seen as an indication that there is indeed a positive effect of direct democracy on (socioeconomic) equality. However, the authors—in the same studies—also find that welfare expenditure is lower in countries with mandatory referenda which again seems to speak for the rather negative view on direct democracy as promoted by authors such as Merkel (2015) or Schäfer and Schoen (2013).

  10. The cross-national analyses by Blume et al. (2009) and Blume and Voigt (2012) only look at certain aspects that are assumed to be related to the socioeconomic dimension of equality.

  11. For example, according to the Gini-Index as a measure for socioeconomic equality, Scandinavian Countries have had relatively low Gini-scores (which indicates high levels of income equality) within the last decade. In contrast, some countries in Eastern and especially Southern Europe have constantly shown higher scores as compared to the rest of the European countries in the same period of time (World Bank 2018). See Appendix for Gini-Indices for all countries.

  12. This is especially problematic for the causal interpretation of the respective results: “While most of the prior literature on the subject attributes contemporary policy differences between initiative and non-initiative states to the causal effect of the institution itself, the historical analysis contained in […] this paper suggests that things are not so simple. There are obvious pre-treatment differences between would-be initiative and non-initiative states” (Berry 2014, p. 29). This aspect of pre-treatment effects is problematic for the causal interpretation of (US-) federal state comparisons and shows the need to either expand the scope of studies on direct democracy and (in-)equality or choose a different methodological approach.

  13. —or if it does not affect equality at all.

  14. The same is true for measures that restrict further benefits for well-off citizens: if, for example, a measure is proposed that would legally restrict manager salaries to a certain amount, this does not benefit lower class citizens per se. It does however prevent well-off citizens (in this case, managers) from further improving their socioeconomic status in relation to low SES citizens. Such a measure would therefore go against a further widening of the socioeconomic gap and is also considered pro-equality.

  15. Our focus is on the gap between clearly disadvantaged and well-off groups. This means that we do not consider bills as equality-promoting if they aim to close, for example, the socioeconomic gap between middle- and upper classes but neglect lower class citizens. Clearly, middle class citizens can hardly be considered a socioeconomically disadvantaged group. Therefore, as long as a bill would not also improve the situation of low SES citizens, it would not contribute to closing the (largest) gap of inequality. Besides, many bills aiming at reducing inequalities do so by benefitting the lower as well as the middle classes. Regarding legal equality, bills count as pro-equality if they give rights to groups that did not enjoy those rights before, while other inhabitants already had them—closing the gap between legally disadvantaged and advantaged groups. Finally, we consider bills as pro-equality in political terms if they aim at increasing the channels of influence for political minorities or decreasing the influence of the most powerful political actors.

  16. Kittilson and Tate (2005, p. 182) define the term political minority as groups that are “subjected to social, political and economic discrimination in society”. However, Lewis (2013, p. 13) correctly states that the term can also be understood in a broader sense, referring to any group whose interests and characteristics are considered in policy and political discussions. Against this background, we understand political minorities as groups whose political aims and interests significantly differ from mainstream political actors (such as major parties)—with regard to social or ethnical groups they primarily represent (e.g. Black Lives Matter Movement) or issues that they put on their agenda (e.g. Pirate Party).

  17. This might in part be due to the inclusion of so many Swiss votes, where direct democracy has a long tradition of being popular.

  18. Since our research question is if direct democracy leads to more or less equal political outputs, we cannot—ex-ante—make a judgment of how an expansion or constriction of direct democratic instruments affects equality.

  19. We also exclude bills on decreasing age limits to being eligible to vote or to be voted. On the one hand, they increase legal and political equality because they give political rights to groups that were worse off before (as they did not have these rights). On the other hand, if we coded them as equality promoting, we would have to define a minimum age up to which it is justified to withhold these rights. The same problem arises in the case of bills on punishments for criminals: by committing a crime they lose some of their rights and we do not want to define, for example, how many years of imprisonment are justified for which crimes.

  20. A comparison between excluded, included and all bills regarding their regional distribution and success at the ballot can be found in the Appendix (Table 8). Unfortunately, the excluded cases were not equally distributed across regions. This is due to, for example, differences in data availability and Eastern European countries joining the EU.

  21. The remaining cases (7%) were either coded accordingly to the majoritarian decision of the coders or excluded if every coder coded them differently.

  22. In order to assess policy outcomes, in-depth case studies would be necessary which is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, we focus on assessing the bills’ outputs.

  23. Bills that were approved by the citizens and passed a (possible) quorum.

  24. Tables including not-equality-related bills can be found in the Appendix.

  25. Alternatively, if it did not have any effect at all.

  26. Bills that were approved by the citizens and passed a (possible) quorum.


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We thank the German Research Foundation (DFG) for their funding of the research project “Inequality and Direct Democracy in Europe”.

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Correspondence to Anna Krämling.

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B. Geißel, A. Krämling and L. Paulus declare that they have no competing interests.




Table 6 Overview of available direct democratic instruments in European democracies
Table 7 Examples of cases excluded from analysis
Table 8 Comparison excluded, included and all bills
Table 9 GINI Scores European democracies 1990–2015
Table 10 Pro- and contra-equality bills including not-related (all equality-dimensions; bill-level)
Table 11 Pro- and contra-equality outputs including not-related (all equality-dimensions; output-level)
Table 12 Pro- and contra-equality bills separated in different equality-dimensions, including not-related (bill-level)
Table 13 Pro- and contra-equality outputs separated in different equality-dimensions, including not-related (output-level)

Output and bill effects



Table 14 Output effects
Table 15 Bill effects

Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden)


Table 16 Output effects
Table 17 Bill effects

Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia)


Table 18 Output effects
Table 19 Bill effects

Southern Europe (Andorra, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, San Marino, Spain)


Table 20 Output effects
Table 21 Bill effects

Western Europe (Austria, France, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, United Kingdom)


Table 22 Output effects
Table 23 Bill effects
Table 24 Codebook

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Geißel, B., Krämling, A. & Paulus, L. More or less equality? Direct democracy in Europe from 1990 to 2015. Z Vgl Polit Wiss 13, 491–525 (2019).

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  • Comparative analysis
  • Direct democracy
  • Europe
  • Equality


  • Vergleichende Analyse
  • Direkte Demokratie
  • Europa
  • Gleichheit