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How Does Direct Democracy Matter? The Impact of Referendum Votes on Politics and Policy-Making

The focus of this account is not, however, the consequences of mandatory referendums. Instead it is concerned with referendum mechanisms that result from pressure 'from below', which differentiate Switzerland, Italy at the national level (to a lesser extent), plus several American states from the many other countries with referendum institutions.2 As a rule, the countries where referendums are used most frequently are those where referendums can be initiated from below. In Switzerland, notwithstanding the increase in mandatory votes (206 since 1848),3 referendums generated by a petition from below are more than half of the total: 132 optional referendums since the constitutional reform of 1874, and 127 popular initiatives since the reform of 1891.4

These referendums share the property of not being under the control of the political system.s By way of petition, a number of citizens (be it an

absolute number or a proportion of the electorate, of voters in a previous election, or suchlike) can, as a rule at any time, decide that an issue should be submitted to a vote. The outcome of this vote is not merely consultative but binding. What matters here is that the initiative for the vote originates in part of the electorate, not in a political institution - the presidency, the government, the majority or even a minority in parliament. Hence, as viewed by those 'above', these referendums cause more uncertainty than referendums which can be anticipated because of constitutional provisions, or those decided in a discretionary way by political bodies: '[t]ypes of popular votes in this category probably raise the most questions and problems regarding the compatibility and integration of the referendum phenomenon with constitutional representative government'.6 Significantly, Swiss citizens were not granted these referendums by the governing elites. The referendums were introduced into the constitution under pressure from reform movements in the second half of the nineteenth century, after a number of cantons had accumulated some experience with them.