Referendums in Western Europe

  • Matt Qvortrup


In present-day Europe, referendums are seen almost as synonymous with democracy. In the words of a thoughtful observer, ‘in the last resort, the arguments against the referendum are … arguments against democracy’ (Bogdanor 1981: 93). But it was not always like that. As in other parts of the world, referendums in Western Europe have previously been held during times of authoritarian regimes in countries. Indeed, in earlier times, criticizing the referendum was almost de rigueur. Robert Michels, in his critique of the oligarchic tendencies of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD) in Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens, warned that ‘a Führer [sic!] would lead the people astray through unclear questions, and would himself be solely entitled to interpret the result afterwards’ (Michels 1925: 431). Michel’s prescience proved accurate; there were authoritarian plebiscites in Austria, Germany and Spain while these countries were under authoritarian and totalitarian rule. Hitler held referendums in 1933, 1994, 1936 and 1938. In Spain, the Ley de sucesión en Jefatura del Estado 1947, which stipulated that Spain should become a monarchy upon the death of Franco, was approved in a plebiscite in 1946, and a further referendum was held on a new constitution in 1966. Similarly, there were plebiscites in Greece in the 1960s, when this country was ruled by a military Junta.


Party System Direct Democracy Political Parti Campaign Spending Constitutional Court 
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