The Rise of Referendums: Demystifying Direct Democracy

Issue Date July 2017
Volume 28
Issue 3
Page Numbers 141-152
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Referendums have been portrayed as a favorite tool of populists and autocratic leaders. The empirical evidence, however, does not support this reading. The total number of plebiscites in dictatorships has fallen. Well-functioning constitutional constraints, rather than populist agitation, have been the driving forces behind many referendums in democracies. Further, where populist leaders have pushed for referendums, the resulting votes have not generally gone in their favor. The referendum has generally been a mechanism for strengthening democracy, a people’s shield even when governments have attempted to wield it as a sword.

About the Author

Matt Qvortrup is professor of political science at Coventry University (U.K.) and a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. In 2015–16, he advised the U.K. House of Commons on referendums. His most recent books include Referendums and Ethnic Conflict (2014) and Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader (2016).

View all work by Matt Qvortrup