The Rise of Referendums: Elite Strategy or Populist Weapon?

Issue Date July 2017
Volume 28
Issue 3
Page Numbers 127-140
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Over the past four decades, the use of referendums has proliferated worldwide. Supporters of this form of direct democracy have long argued that in democratic systems, referendums increase civic participation and improve accountability. Historically, however, mainstream parties in the European Union have held referendums for a variety of strategic reasons, including to push through unpopular policies. More recently, small, radical, populist, marginal parties have used referendums to bypass the representative-democratic barriers that tend to relegate such parties to the fringes. This essay examines both historical trends in the use of referendums and the negative consequences of these votes—which include conflicts of legitimacy, a lack of recourse in the event of “buyer’s remorse,” and the crude reduction of complex policy issues to “yes or no” questions.

About the Author

Liubomir Topaloff, associate professor of political science at Meiji University, Tokyo, is author of Political Parties and Euroskepticism (2012), and Political Economy of Populism (2018).

View all work by Liubomir Topaloff