The Rise of Government-Initiated Referendums in Consolidated Democracies
The referendum has been an important decision-making device since the mid-twentieth century in very few countries. Since the beginning of the 1960s, however, there has been a striking increase in the use of referendums to settle an ever growing range of questions. This is particularly true in the consolidated democracies, though similar trends can be found in other political contexts. Two questions are raised by the increase in the frequency of referendums in the consolidated democracies. First, what can explain it? Is it circumstantial factors, such as the emergence of new cleavages, to which parties will soon respond and, by so doing, end the apparent ‘crisis of representation’ that is seemingly provoking popular consultations? Or is it part of a more structural trend, an ineluctable process whereby democracies are becoming, by means of referendums as well as other devices (such as opinion polls and televoting), more and more direct and less and less mediated? Second, is this growing use of referendums necessarily a positive development, given that ‘more referendums’ does not necessarily mean ‘more democracy’? Such a phenomenon could, in fact, merely mask the use of the referendum by governments not for genuine consultative purposes, such as giving the public a greater say in shaping legislation, but instead for instrumental and strategic purposes, such as the consolidation of governments’ own power.
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