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A referendum (in some countries synonymous with plebiscite, considered archaic in American English — or a vote on a ballot question) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This may result in the adoption of a new constitution, a constitutional amendment, a law, the recall of an elected official or simply a specific government policy. It is a form of direct democracy.


Referendum is the gerund of the Latin verb refero, and has the meaning "bringing back" (i.e. bringing the question back to the people). The term plebiscite has a generally similar meaning in modern usage, and comes from the Latin plebiscita, which originally meant a decree of the Concilium Plebis (Plebeian Council), the popular assembly of the Roman Republic. Today, a "referendum" can also often be referred to as a "plebiscite", but in some countries they refer to different types of votes, differing in their legal consequences. In the United States, the terms are synonymous but "plebiscite" is considered archaic.

Referendums and referenda are both commonly used as plurals of referendum. However, the use of referenda is deprecated by the Oxford English Dictionary, which advises that: Referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund, referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning things to be referred, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.

In the United States, a referendum can also typically known as an initiative when originating in a petition of ordinary citizens, and as a referendum only if it consists of a proposal referred to voters by the legislature. A referendum can be considered a kind of election and is often referred to as such in the U.S. (an election literally means a choice). In other countries, the term election is often reserved for events in which elected representatives are chosen.

Referendums by country


Approval in a referendum is necessary in order to amend the Australian constitution. A bill must first be passed by both houses of Parliament or, in certain limited circumstances, by only one house of Parliament, and is then submitted to a referendum. If a majority of those voting, as well as separate majorities in each of a majority of states, (and where appropriate a majority of people in any affected state) vote in favor of the amendment, it is presented for Royal Assent, given in the Queen's name by the Governor-General. Due to the specific mention of referendums in the Australian constitution, non-constitutional referendums are usually termed "plebiscites" in Australia.


Austrian constitution defines two types of referendums on the federal level: binding referendum and non-binding referendum. Binding referendum is mandatory if the President should be removed from office before the end of his term, and in case of comprehensive change of the Federal Constitution. Binding referendum is facultative (not mandatory) in case of non-comprehensive changes in the Federal Constitution. There was only one binding referendum in post-1945 Austria: European Union membership referendum.

The National Council has the power to call on a non-binding referendum on matters of great importance. There were two such referendums in post-1945 Austria: nuclear power referendum in 1978, and conscription referendum in 2013.


Binding referendums in Belgium are not legally possible because of the constitutional principle that the country's powers are exercised by the nation and not by the people. Consequently, Belgium is a representative democracy, almost without any form of direct democracy.

Non-binding referenda on the municipal and provincial level are allowed. Non-binding referenda on the regional level are not allowed.


Three nationwide referendums have been held so far in Brazilian history.

In 1963, the country had just adopted the parliamentary government system, but in a referendum held in 1963, the Brazilian population was consulted about which government system should be enacted in the country and it was decided to have Brazil return to a Presidential system.

In 1993, another referendum to decide Brazil's government system was held. Voters could choose to keep the presidential republic system, adopt a parliamentary republic system, or adopt a parliamentary monarchy system. The majority of voters opined to maintain the current presidential government system.

In 2005 a referendum was held to consult the population about their opinion on the possibility of forbidding the sale and civilian possession of firearms and ammunition nationwide. This referendum was offered by the government as part of a violence minimization initiative known as project disarmament. Most voters declared themselves contrary to the ban and the laws regarding commerce and ownership of weapons in the country remained unaltered.


Four nationwide referendums have been held in Bulgaria since it gained its De Facto independence in 1878:

  • On 19 November 1922 the question was if criminals from the three previous wars were to be prosecuted;[1]
  • On 8 September 1946 the question was if Bulgaria was to remain a monarchy to become a republic;[2]
  • On 16 May 1971 the nation's approval of a new constitution was asked;[3]
  • On 27 January 2013 the question was if Bulgaria should develop its nuclear power by building a new nuclear power plant.[4][5]

Several regional referendums have been held as well.


Main article: Referendums in Canada

Referendums are rare in Canada and only three have ever occurred at the federal level. The most recent was a referendum in 1992 on a package of proposed constitutional measures known as the Charlottetown Accord. Although the Constitution of Canada does not expressly require that amendments be approved by referendum, many argue that, in light of the precedent set by the Charlottetown Accord referendum, this may have become a constitutional convention.

A referendum can also occur at the provincial level. The 1980 and 1995 referendums on the secession of Québec are notable cases. In conjunction with the provincial election in 2007, the province of Ontario voted on a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system and British Columbia held two consecutive referendums on BC-STV in 2005 and 2009. In 2011 British Columbia held yet another referendum against a newly imposed HST tax. The results ended up making British Columbia the first province to overturn the harmonization of provincial and federal taxes.


There have been four plebiscites and one "consultation" in Chilean history. In 1925, a plebiscite was held over a new constitution that would replace a semi-parliamentary system with a presidential one. The "Yes" vote won overwhelmingly, with 95% of the vote.

In 1978, after the United Nations protested against Pinochet's régime, the country's military government held a national consultation, which asked if people supported Pinochet's rule. The "Yes" vote won with 74%, although the results have been questioned.

Another constitutional plebiscite was held in 1980. The "Yes" won with 68.5%, prolonging Pinochet's term until 1989 and replacing the 1925 Constitution with a new one still used today. The results of this plebiscite have also been questioned by Pinochet's opponents, because of the lack of voters registration.

In a historical plebiscite held in 1988, 56% voted to end the military régime. The next year, yet another plebiscite was held for constitutional changes for the transition to a democratic government (the "Yes" vote won with 91%).

There have been several referendums in individual municipalities in Chile since the return to civilian rule in 1990. A referendum, which took place on 2006 in Las Condes, over the construction of a mall was noteworthy for being the first instance in Chilean history where electronic voting machines were used.

Costa Rica

October 7, 2007 the first referendum held in Costa Rica was to approve or reject the free trade agreement with Central America, Dominican Republic (Costa Rica already has FTAs with the latter) and the United States known as the Dominican Republic – Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA).

It was very narrowly approved (49.030 votes). Results were 51.62% voted in favour and 48.38% against it. It is currently the only free trade agreement in the world that has been approved on a referendum.

From 2008 to 2010 conservative groups, linked to religious institutions, managed to collect 150,000 signatures to call a referendum to decline unions between same-sex couples. The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) had scheduled the consultation on December 5, 2010.

However, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court rejected the referendum stating that "The rights of minorities that arise from anti-majoritarian claims can not be subjected to a referendum process which the majority imposes". This consideration supports the main argument of those who rejected the consultation considered a violation of human rights, among these gay groups and humanitarian actors.

The Board further considered that "people who have sex with same sex are a group at disadvantage and discrimination, which requires the support of public authorities for the recognition of their constitutional rights or other legislation". Decisions of the Constitutional Court are final so the ruling stopped the referendum and opened to the Congress the opportunity to continue discussing the bill on the recognition of homosexual unions.


Referendums in Croatia can be called by:

The institution of a referendum is regulated by article 87. of the constitution of Croatia. Referendums can be called on any issue falling within the competence of the Parliament of Croatia or on any other issue which the President of Croatia considers to be important for the independence, unity and existence of the Republic.

Since amendments to the constitution in 2001, the Parliament of Croatia is obligated by constitution to call a referendum if signatures of 10% of registered voters of the Republic of Croatia are collected. The time frame for collecting the signatures is defined by the law on referendums, and it is 15 days.[6]


Constitution of Cyprus has no mention of referendum (as of 2013). The only referendum to take place in independent Cyprus was a referendum on the Annan Plan.

Czech Republic

There are no provisions concerning referendums in the Constitution of the Czech Republic, except for "referendum concerning the accession of the Czech Republic to the European Union". Therefore, the only referendum ever held in the Czech Republic was Czech European Union membership referendum in 2003.


In Denmark, after a law has been passed by parliament, one third of the members can demand a referendum.[7] This does not apply to money bills or expropriation. A law that transfers sovereignty to an international organisation must be subjected to a referendum unless five sixth of the MPs vote for it. In both cases, to defeat the law the no votes must not only outnumber the yes votes, they must also number at least 30% of the electorate. Since all referendums have had much more than 60% turnout, no bill has yet passed due to lack of interest.

In practise, referendums have been held every time new treaties of the European Union have been approved, even when more than five sixths can be found. Recently, the Danish government was highly criticized when it did not hold a referendum regarding the controversial Lisbon treaty.

The Constitution of Denmark can be changed only after a referendum. To pass, the yes votes must not only outnumber the no votes, they must also number at least 40% of the electorate.

The present location of the border with Germany was determined by a referendum in 1920 after the German capitulation. See Schleswig.


Main article: Egyptian constitutional referendum, 2011

On 19 March 2011 a constitutional referendum was held in Egypt, following the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. The reforms made it easier for candidates to run for president, limited the number of presidential terms to two four-year periods, and ensured judicial monitoring of elections.


The Constitution of Estonia gives the Parliament of Estonia the power to submit a bill or other national issue to a binding referendum. If a bill which is submitted to a referendum does not receive a majority of votes in favour, the President of the Republic shall declare extraordinary elections to the Parliament.

There are some issues which cannot be submitted to the referendum: issues regarding the budget, taxation, financial obligations of the state, ratification and denunciation of international treaties, the declaration or termination of a state of emergency, or national defence..

Some parts of the Constitution can be amended only by a referendum, while the rest of Constitution can be amended either by a referendum or by other means.

A referendum was called by the Parliament of Estonia on 2 occasions since it's independence from USSR was declared:

Also, there was a referendum on Estonian independence in 1991 while Estonian SSR was still a part of USSR.


The Constitution of Finland allows only for a non-binding referendum called on by the Parliament. If 50 thousand Finnish citizens sign an initiative (for an act or a referendum), the Parliament has to discuss it, but the initiative is not binding.

As of 2013 there have been only two referendums in Finland:

  • Finnish prohibition referendum in 1931
  • Finnish European Union membership referendum in 1994.


The practice of referendums for tough decisions appeared with Charles De Gaulle's Fifth Republic, in order to overcome the Parliament. A referendum can be called by the President for constitutional changes, treaty ratification, laws concerning the administration or the territory. The political risks involved made the practice rare. Most constitutional revisions went through the super-majority of the Parliament in Congress. Therefore, a procedure of popular initiative, backed by a handful of MPs, is being put in place.


Main article: Referendums in Germany

Following World War II, the new republic was founded with only minor elements of direct democracy. On the federal level, there are only two mandatory constitutional referendum types. One type is for enacting a new constitution. Changes to the constitution do not require a public vote and there is no provision for an initiative for a constitutional amendment. There has never been a referendum of this type, although there was an argument in that direction during German reunification. The other type requires a public vote in case of restructuring the Bundesländer states ("Neugliederung des Bundesgebietes") which led to a referendum on the union of Baden and Württemberg into Baden-Württemberg in 1951 (accepted) and a referendum on the union of Berlin and Brandenburg into Berlin-Brandenburg in 1996 (rejected).

Originally none of the Bundesländer states had provisions for a general binding referendum ("Volksentscheid" people's decision). Only Hesse and Bavaria have a mandatory binding referendum on changes to the state constitution. However, most states have a form of non-binding ballot question ("Volksbefragung" people's inquiry) which has rarely been used - the most important one had been the Saar Statute referendum, 1955. General forms of direct democracy were first introduced in the communities with facultative ballot questions ("Bürgerbefragung" citizens inquiry) and public initiatives ("Bürgerbegehren" citizens request) that are both non-binding. In some areas, this has been expanded into a binding referendum type ("Bürgerentscheid" citizens decision) but almost universally facultative. In some states, there is a general right on state popular initiatives ("Volksbegehren" people's request) which was used in Hamburg to push the state government to pass a law on a facultative binding state referendum ("Volksentscheid") in 2007.


The Constitution provides for two kinds of referendums:

  • a referendum concerning a "passed law"
  • a referendum concerning a matter of "national interest".

Nonetheless, these constitutional provisions have not yet been enacted into law and therefore there is no procedure for a referendum to be held.

There were 7 referendums in Greece from 1920 to 1974. All but one have had to do with the form of government, namely retention/reestablishment or abolition of the monarchy. The last referendum in 1974 resulted in confirming of the parliamentary republic. The only referendum not concerning the form of government was constitutional referendum in 1968 held by the military junta. There were no referendums in Greece since 1974.


The Constitution proscribes two ways to hold a referendum:

  • upon the motion of at least two hundred thousand electors
  • upon the motion of the President of the Republic, the Government or one hundred thousand electors.

The Constitution imposes a number of prohibitions on matters on which a referendum can be held, including amending Constitution, budget, taxing, obligations from international agreements, military operations, etc. Required voter turnout for the referendum to be valid is 50%. The decision made by a referendum is binding on the Parliament.

There was one referendum in People's Republic of Hungary and there were 5 referendums in modern (post-1989) Hungary.

Hong Kong

Due to discontent towards the proposal of political reform made by the Hong Kong government, the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats joined together to carry out "Five Constituencies Referendum" in early 2010, by having one Legislative Councillors (from either one of the parties) in each constituency resigned, forcing the government to carry out a by-election, thus giving a chance for all voters to show their will towards universal suffrage and the abolition of functional constituencies. This is often called a "de facto referendum".

The Basic Law of Hong Kong does not provide for official referendums, but the pan-democrats hope that by returning the resignees to the Legislative Council, on their manifesto of real political reform in Hong Kong and the abolition of functional constituencies,[8] the election can be seen as a de facto referendum and an endorsement of these issues.[9]

The original five pan-democrat Legislative Councillors were re-elected, the turnout was much lower than the expectation of the two parties, due to the suppression of pro-Beijing Camp.


The constitution of Iceland provides two articles on referendums:

  • According to the 11th article, if 3/4 of the parliament votes to dismiss the president then that decision must be put to a binding referendum.
  • According to the 26th article, should the president veto a bill from the parliament then it must be put to a binding referendum.

A total of 7 referendums have been held in Iceland, three of which were held after the nation declared independence and became a republic in 1944.

  1. Prohibition referendum (1908)
  2. Community service referendum (1916)
  3. Sovereignty referendum (1918)
  4. Prohibitation referendum (1933)
  5. Constitutional referendum (1944)
  6. Loan guarantees referendum (2010)
  7. Loan guarantees referendum (2011)
  8. Icelandic constitution non-binding referendum (2011)


The current Constitution of Iraq was approved by referendum on 15 October 2005, two years after the United States-led invasion. The constitution was designed to shift crucial decisions about government, the judiciary and human rights to a future national assembly. It was later modified to provide for the establishment of a committee by the parliament to be elected in December 2005 to consider changes to the constitution in 2006.


The current Constitution of Ireland was adopted by plebiscite on 1 July 1937. In Ireland every constitutional amendment must be approved by referendum; 30 such referendums have occurred from the enactment of the current constitution to the end of 2009.[10] Constitutional amendments are first adopted by both Houses of the Oireachtas (parliament), submitted to a referendum, and are signed into law by the President. The signature is merely a formality: the president cannot refuse to sign into law an amendment that has been approved in a referendum. The constitution also provides for a referendum on an ordinary law, known as an 'ordinary referendum'. Such a referendum can take place only under special circumstances, and none have yet occurred. The closest referendum result was 1995's vote to legalise divorce - 50.3% voted "Yes" (to legalise divorce) and 49.7% voted "No." Only Ireland held a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon.


Main article: Referendums in Italy

The constitution of Italy provides for two kinds of binding referendums.

A legislative referendum can be called in order to abrogate a law totally or partially, if requested by 500,000 electors or five regional councils. This kind of referendum is valid only if at least a majority of electors goes to the polling station. It is forbidden to call a referendum regarding financial laws or laws relating to pardons or the ratification of international treaties.

A constitutional referendum can be called in order to approve a constitutional law or amendment only when it has been approved by the Houses (Chamber of Deputies and Senate of the Republic) with a majority of less than two thirds in both or either House, and only at the request of one fifth of the members of either House, or 500,000 electors or five Regional Councils. A constitutional referendum is valid no matter how many electors go to the polling station. Any citizen entitled to vote in an election to the Chamber of Deputies may participate in a referendum.


The Constitution of Latvia proscribes a referendum for five purposes:

  • recalling of the Parliament
  • acceding to the European Union
  • accepting substantial changes in the terms regarding the membership in the European Union
  • accepting legislation suspended by the President
  • amending the Constitution or adopting a law

One tenth or registered voters has the right to initiate a national referendum regarding recalling of the Parliament. Voter turnout needed is two thirds of the number of the voters who participated in the last elections for the Parliament.

Substantial changes in the terms regarding the membership of Latvia in the European Union shall be decided by a national referendum if such referendum is requested by at least one-half of the members of the Parliament.

A referendum will be held on a law if a President suspends it, and in a two-month period one tenth of the electorate requests a referendum, except if the Parliament again adopts the law with three three-quarters super-majority. Voter turnout needed is 50% of the number of the voters who participated in the last elections for the Parliament.

The constitution limits issues which can be submitted to a referendum. It forbids issues like budget, taxes, military conscription, declaration of war, peace treaties, agreements with other nations, etc.

One tenth of the electorate can request amendment of the Constitution adoption of a law. Absolute majority is required for such a referendum to pass. The exception is decision regarding substantial changes in the terms regarding membership in the EU - those measures need voter turnout of 50% of the number of the voters who participated in the last elections for the Parliament.

There were 13 referendums in Latvia's history, of that 4 in 1923 - 1934 period and 9 since 1991.


The Constitution of Luxembourg mentions the referendum in Article 51: "Voters will be asked to vote by way of referendum in the cases and under the conditions determined by law." The only details about execution of referendums are found in Article 114 which deals with constitutional amendments. There are no other provisions regarding referendums in Luxembourg.

The referendum on constitutional amendment (defined in Article 114) is binding. Referendums in general (defined in Article 51) are not explicitly stated to be binding.

There were three referendums in Luxembourg since 1919:

None of those referendums were constitutional amendments, so the were non-binding.


There are three types of referendums in Malta: constitutional, consultative and abrogative referendums.

Constitutional referendums are required by article 66(3) of the Constitution of Malta. While binding, it is limited to the single instance of amending the Constitutional provision on the maximum parliamentary term of five years. This type of referendum has never taken place.

The other categories of referendums are regulated by the Referenda Act. "Consultative" referendums (the Act does not use the term) can either take place prior to the assent of a bill in the House of Representatives or following the parliamentary procedure in a form of a conditional clause in the said bill. In the former case it would not legally bind Parliament to approve the said legislation irrelevant of the result of the said referendum, however the latter case, it would be conventionally binding on the President to promulgate the bill into law. There has been five referendums like this on a national level, one on a regional level (Gozo Civic Council referendum, 1973) and a number of local referendums organised by single Local Councils.

An abrogative referendum has never been held and, if invoked and successful, can abrogate pieces of legislation barring some exceptions, notably financial and constitutional law.


According to Article 75 of the Constitution of Moldova, "(1) Problems of utmost gravity or urgency confronting the Moldovan society or State shall be resolved by referendum. (2) The decisions passed in consequence of the results produced by the republican referendum have supreme judicial power." There were two referendums held in Moldova, in 1994 and 2010.


There have been several referendums in Morocco, most of which were related to the Moroccan constitution. Since becoming King, King Mohammed VI has led many reforms that made Morocco an exception from all the other Arab countries. On February 20, 2011, thousands took to the streets of Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier and Marrakesh in peaceful protests demanding a new constitution, a change in government and an end to corruption. During a march on Hassan II Avenue in Rabat, demonstrators demanded a new constitution to bring more democracy to the country. They shouted slogans calling for economic opportunity, education reform, better health services, and help in coping with the rising cost of living.

On March 9, King Mohammed VI made a speech that was described as a "historical" speech in which he announced several reforms including a new constitution to the country.

In a televised speech on Friday, 17 June, King Mohammed VI announced a series of constitutional reforms, to be put to a national referendum on 1 July. The proposed reforms would give the prime minister and the parliament more executive authority, and would make Berber an official language in Morocco, together with Arabic. The proposal would empower the prime minister with the authority to appoint government officials and to dissolve the parliament - the powers previously held by the king. However, the king would remain the military commander-in-chief and would retain his position as the chair of the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Security Council, the primary bodies responsible for the security policy. A new constitutional provision would also confirm the king's role as the highest religious authority in the country.

Although most people were celebrating among the protesters after the King's speech, the leaders of the 20 February Movement rejected the proposals as insufficient and called for continuing protests on 19 June 2011. On 29 June 2011, the protesters called for a boycott of the referendum. The referendum was held on June 1, and almost all Moroccans said yes to it with a "98% yes" "2% No" turnout.


In principle, national referendums in the Netherlands are not possible by law. However, from 2002 until 2005, there was a Temporary Referendum Law in place, which allowed for non-binding referendums, known in Dutch as Volksraadpleging ("People's Consultation"), to be organised for laws already approved by the House of Representatives. No referendum was called based on this law.

In order to hold the 2005 referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, a different law was temporarily put in place. That referendum was the first national referendum in the Netherlands in 200 years and it was the result of an initiative proposal by parliamentarians Farah Karimi (Greens), Niesco Dubbelboer (Labour) and Boris van der Ham (Democrats).

New Zealand

New Zealand has two types of referendum. Government referendums are predominantly about alcohol policy (although none has been held recently) or constitutional issues. However, there are also referendums on other issues. Furthermore, constitutional issues, such as the establishment of the Supreme Court of New Zealand, may be done without a referendum. Government referendums can be binding or non-binding.

Since 1993, New Zealand also has provision for non-binding citizens-initiated referendums. To initiate a citizens-initiated referendum on a particular issue, proponents of the referendum apply to the Clerk of the House of Representatives, and once the question wording is determined, proponents have twelve months to compile a petition containing signatures from at least ten percent of all registered voters. Only five citizens-initiated referendums have gone to a vote: one in 1995, two in 1999, one in 2009 and another to be held in late 2013.[11]


The Norwegian Constitution does not mention refendums at all, and as such, referendums are not a part of Norwegian political practice. However, six advisory referendums have been held in Norway, most notably, the referendums on Norwegian EU membership, and the referendum for dissolving the union with Sweden. It is worth noting that these referendums, and potential future referendums, although legitimate as part of Norwegian constitutional convention, will not have any legal binding: They will merely be advisory, and the final decision will be taken by the Norwegian parliament, who may choose (albeit unlikely) to disregard the will of the Norwegian people as expressed through the referendum.


Main article: Referendums in Poland

There have been four referendums in the modern Poland:

  • two in 1996:
    • General property enfranchisement of citizens referendum
    • Referendum about certain ways of use of public property
  • one in 1997 - Referendum on the Constitution
  • one in 2003 - Referendum on joining the EU

A referendum on a proposed EU constitution was planned in 2005, but has been put on hold after the rejection of constitution by French voters.


In Portugal, a Referendum is a determined proposition presented by the Government, Citizens or Political Organizations that is submitted to the popular pronouncement through a national election. Until now, there were already three Referendums: abortion, in 1998, when the "No" won; regionalization, in 1998, when the "No" won; abortion, in 2007, where the "Yes" won. This referendum was asked because the first referendum on this issue had a low turnout.


Under the Romanian Constitution of 1991, revised in 2003, there are three situations in which referendums can be held. Article 90 of the Constitution establishes a facultative and non-binding referendum, which the President can initiate on matters of principle. Article 95 establishes a mandatory and binding referendum for the impeachment of the President in case he is deemed guilty of disobeying the Constitution. Article 151 also establishes a mandatory and binding referendum on approving Constitutional amendments. This last provision has been used twice: in adopting the Romanian Constitution in 1991, and amending it in 2003.


The Constitution of the Republic of Serbia was adopted on a referendum held in 28–29 October 2006. The constitutional referendum passed with 3,521,724 voting a 53.04% majority. 3,645,517 or 54.91% voted on the referendum, which made it legitimate.


According to the Constitution of Singapore, a referendum can be held in a few circumstances, including situations when a constitutional amendment passed by the Parliament is rejected by the President, or when the nation's sovereignty needs to be decided (i.e., merger or incorporation into other countries). There has been only one referendum in Singapore to date, the 1962 national referendum which decided the merger of Singapore into Malaysia. Singapore was eventually seceded from Malaysia and declared independence, which had not been an option in the referendum, on 9 August 1965.


Main article: Referendums in Sweden

The Constitution of Sweden provides for both binding and non-binding referendums. Since the introduction of parliamentary democracy, six referendums have been held: the first was about alcohol prohibition in 1922, and the most recent was about euro membership in 2003. All have been non-binding, consultative referendums. Two, in 1957 and 1980, were multiple-choice referendums.


In Switzerland Swiss voters can demand a binding referendum at federal, cantonal and municipal level. They are a central feature of Swiss political life. It is not the government's choice whether or when a referendum is held, but it is a legal procedure regulated by the Swiss constitution. There are two types of referendums:

  • Optional referendum: Any federal law, certain other federal resolutions, and international treaties that are ongoing in nature, or any change to Swiss law may be subject to referendum if at least 50,000 people or eight cantons have petitioned to do so within 100 days. Within cantons and municipalities, the required number of people is smaller, and there may be additional causes for a facultative referendum, e.g., expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money. The facultative referendum is the most common type of referendum, and it is mostly carried out by political parties or by interest groups.
  • Mandatory referendum: There must be a referendum on any amendments to the constitution and on any joining of a multinational community or organization for collective security. In many municipalities, expenditures that exceed a certain amount of money also are subject to the obligatory referendum. Constitutional amendments are proposed by the parliament or by the cantons or by federal popular initiative.[12] Citizen's initiatives at the federal level need to collect 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months, and must not contradict international laws or treaties. Often, parliament elaborates a counter-proposal to an initiative, leading to a multiple-choice referendum. Very few such initiatives pass the vote, but more often, the parliamentary counter proposal is approved.

The possibility of facultative referendums forces the parliament to search for a compromise between the major interest groups. In many cases, the mere threat of a facultative referendum or of an initiative is enough to make the parliament adjust a law.

The referendums are said, by their adversaries, to slow politics down. On the other hand, empirical scientists, e.g. Bruno S. Frey among many, show that this and other instruments of citizens' participation, direct democracy, contribute to stability and happiness.

The votes on referendums are always held on a Sunday, typically three or four times a year, and in most cases, the votes concern several referendums at the same time, often at different political levels (federal, cantonal, municipal). Referendums are also often combined with elections. The percentage of voters is around 40% to 50%, unless there is an election. The decisions made in referendums tend to be conservative. Citizens' initiatives are usually not passed. The federal rule and referendums have been used in Switzerland since 1848.


The Referendum Act was promoted and introduced by the Democratic Progressive Party for years and then enacted by the Legislative Yuan in 2003. There have been six national referendums and two local referendums in Taiwan.

United Kingdom

Although Acts of Parliament may permit referendums to take place, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty means any Act of Parliament giving effect to a referendum result could be reversed by a subsequent Act of Parliament. As a result, referendums in the United Kingdom cannot be constitutionally binding, although they will usually have a persuasive political effect.

Major referendums are rare; only two have been put to the entire UK electorate. The first was the United Kingdom European Communities membership referendum, 1975, which was held two years after British accession to the European Economic Community to gauge support for continued membership. The second was the United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, 2011. This was to vote on changing the 'First Past the Post' system to an alternative electoral system, the Alternative Vote.

Referendums have been held in individual parts of the United Kingdom on issues relating to devolution in Scotland and Wales, an elected Mayor of London and a Greater London Authority for Greater London, a regional assembly for the North-East of England and the constitutional status and governance of Northern Ireland. Since 1973, the year of the first such plebiscite, there have been nine major referendums.

In 2004, Her Majesty's Government promised a UK-wide referendum on the new European Constitution, but this was postponed in 2005 following the defeats of the French and Dutch referendums. Due to the replacement of the European Constitution with the Treaty of Lisbon, there was no obligation for a referendum. Referendums have also been proposed, but not held, on the replacement of the pound sterling with the euro as the currency of the United Kingdom. The present Scottish Government, a Scottish National Party administration, wishes to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence in 2014. As it is now a majority government, the referendum can pass through the Scottish Parliament unhindered. The Westminster government has also indicated that it will facilitate such a referendum.[13]

At the local level, the Government has put proposals for directly-elected mayors to 37 local authority areas by referendum. The 1972 Local Government Act also contains a little-used provision that allows non-binding local referendums on any issue to be called by small groups of voters. Strathclyde Regional Council held a postal referendum in 1994 on whether control of water and sewerage services should be transferred to appointed boards: this was largely a political tactic, since this was the policy of the UK Government at the time. The UK Parliament enacted the legislation anyway, and it came into force on 1 April 1996.

United States

In the United States, the term "referendum" typically refers to a popular vote originated by petition to overturn legislation already passed at the state or local levels (mainly in the western United States). In industrial cities and regions, it refers to internal, union organization in terms of electing delegates or approving a collective bargaining agreement. By contrast, "initiatives" and "legislative referrals" consist of newly drafted legislation submitted directly to a popular vote as an alternative to adoption by a legislature. Collectively, referendums and initiatives in the United States are commonly referred to as ballot measures, initiatives, or propositions.

There is no provision for the holding of referendums at the federal level in the United States, which the Constitution does not provide for. A constitutional amendment would be required to allow it. However, the constitutions of 24 states (principally in the West, but also in Eastern states like Massachusetts) and many local and city governments provide for referendums and citizen's initiatives. Such state-level referenda, as an example, have resulted in the limitation of property taxes as with California's Proposition 13 and Massachusetts' Proposition 2½ in the late 20th century.

However, a Constitutional Convention can be called by two-thirds of the legislatures of the States, and that Convention is empowered to propose one or more amendments to the Constitution. These amendments are then sent to the States to be approved by three-fourths of their legislatures or conventions. This route has never been taken, and there is discussion in political science circles about just how such a convention would be convened, and what kind of changes it would bring about.[14]


Main article: Politics of Uruguay

The Uruguayan constitution allows citizens to challenge laws approved by Parliament by use of a referendum or to propose changes to the Constitution by the use of a plebiscite. This right has been used a few times in the past 15 years: in 1989, to confirm or reject an amnesty to members of the military who violated human rights during the military regime (1973–1985); in 1989, to defend pensioners' incomes; in 1992, to stop privatization of public utilities companies; and, in 2004, to protect water resources.

Other countries

  • East Timor, formerly governed by Indonesia, had a referendum on 30 August 1999, in which voters chose either to become a Special Autonomous Region within Indonesia, or for independence. Around 79% of voters opted for independence.
  • Eritrea: In April 1993 nearly 1 million voters (a quarter of the population), cast ballots to become "sovereign and independent" of Ethiopia. This vote was the result of thirty years of war by Eritreans during their War of Independence. The result was a vote for independence by 99.8% of the voters.
  • Iran: In 1979 and after the Islamic Revolution had toppled the Iranian monarchy, a referendum was held to choose the future governing system of the country. The question was a simple yes or no to the Islamic Republic, a system which combines direct representation with religious authority. The Islamic Republic was established after more than 98% of the population voted yes.
  • 'Kashmir' (a state within the territory of India and Pakistan) The Security Council of United Nations on the complaint of Government of India concerning the dispute over the State of Jammu and Kashmir passed resolution 47(1948), “that both India and Pakistan desire that the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite”. It recommended to the Governments of India and Pakistan to restore peace and order in Jammu and Kashmir and provide full freedom to all subjects of the state, to vote on the question of accession.
  • Puerto Rico: Four Puerto Rican status referendums (in 1967, 1993, 1998 and 2012) have taken place in Puerto Rico to determine whether the insular area should become an independent nation (comprising a republic and an associated republic), apply for statehood, or maintain commonwealth (Estado Libre Asociado) status. Remaining a commonwealth has been the result of the first three referendums. The fourth referendum resulted in a majority being pro-statehood. There was also a 2005 referendum (Resolution 64) to determine whether the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico should be restructured (among other changes to become unicameral).
  • Pakistan: General Pervez Musharraf held a referendum on 30 April 2002 to legitimize his presidency and assure its continuance after the approaching restoration of democracy. He thus extended his term to five years after the October 2002 elections. The voter turnout was 80 percent by most estimates, amidst claims of irregularities. A few weeks later, Musharraf went on TV and apologized to the nation for "irregularities" in the referendum.
  • Singapore: On 1 September 1962, a referendum was held to put the terms of the merger with Malaya to a direct vote by the citizens of Singapore. (The decision to merge with Malaya had already been made.) There were three choices: 1) To merge with Malaya, having autonomy in labour and education; 2) To merge with Malaya, having same status as the other states in Malaya; 3) To merge with Malaya, having terms similar to those of the Borneo territories. Option #1 won with 71%. Two years after the merger, Malaysia expelled Singapore.
  • Slovenia: There was an independence referendum on 23 December 1990. The turnout was 93.3% of all voters, of which 94.8% that cast a vote supported independence. It was the first such referendum in one of the then Yugoslavian republics and as such marked a turning point in the history of many nations. The results were announced on 26 December, and on 25 June 1991, Slovenian parliament passed an independence law proclaiming Slovenia a sovereign country. This was followed by the Ten-Day War, in which Slovenian forces drove the Yugoslav People's Army out of the country.[15][16]
  • Spain: In 1976 a referendum was held to determine if citizens wanted to change the political system (dictatorship) or not to change it, after the death of Francisco Franco. Spaniards chose (94%) to change ("Referéndum para la reforma política", literally «Referendum for political reformation»). Also, in 1986 another referendum approved Spain's membership of NATO.
  • Russian Constitution of 1993 was adopted by controversial referendum.
  • Venezuela: The 1999 constitution, created by the Chávez government, and approved by referendum, brought in the concept of requiring referendums for constitutional changes, as well as providing for recall referendums of elected officials (which require petitions of a minimum percentage of voters to be submitted). In the Venezuelan recall referendum of 2004 voters determined whether or not Hugo Chávez, the current President of Venezuela, should be recalled from office. The result of the referendum was to not recall Chávez.
  • Thailand: On 4 September 2008, amidst hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding the government resign, Thailand's premier Samak Sundaravej's government approved the idea of a referendum to ask the Thai electorate if it wanted to keep the government or not. The plebiscite was not held because it was certain to legitimize unfairly the government's standing and policies.

Multiple-choice referendums

A referendum usually offers the electorate only two choices, either to accept or reject a proposal, but this need not necessarily be the case. In Switzerland, for example, multiple choice referendums are common; two multiple choice referendums held in Sweden, in 1957 and 1980, offered voters a choice of three options; and in 1977 a referendum held in Australia to determine a new national anthem was held in which voters were presented with four choices.

A multiple choice referendum poses the problem of how the result is to be determined if no single option receives the support of an absolute majority (more than half) of voters. This can be resolved by applying voting systems designed for single winner elections to a multiple-choice referendum.

Swiss referendums get around this problem by offering a separate vote on each of the multiple options as well as an additional decision about which of the multiple options should be preferred. In the Swedish case, in both referendums the 'winning' option was chosen by the Single Member Plurality ("first past the post") system. In other words the winning option was deemed to be that supported by a plurality, rather than an absolute majority, of voters. In the 1977 Australian referendum the winner was chosen by the system of preferential instant-runoff voting.

Although California does not have deliberate multiple-choice referendums in the Swiss or Swedish sense (in which only one of several counter-propositions can be victorious, and the losing proposals are wholly null and void), it does have so many yes-or-no referendums at each Election Day that the State's Constitution provides a method for resolving inadvertent conflicts when two or more inconsistent propositions are passed on the same day. This is a de facto form of Approval Voting - i.e., the proposition with the most "yes" votes prevails over the others to the extent of any conflict.


Although some advocates of direct democracy would have the referendum become the dominant institution of government, in practice and in principle, in almost all cases, the referendum exists solely as a complement to the system of representative democracy, in which most major decisions are made by an elected legislature. An often cited exception is the Swiss canton of Glarus, in which meetings are held on the village lawn to decide on matters of public concern. In most jurisdictions that practice them, referendums are relatively rare occurrences and are restricted to important issues.

Advocates of the referendum argue that certain decisions are best taken out of the hands of representatives and determined directly by the people. Some adopt a strict definition of democracy, saying elected parliaments are a necessary expedient to make governance possible in the large, modern nation-state, though direct democracy is nonetheless preferable and the referendum takes precedence over Parliamentary decisions.

Other advocates insist that the principle of popular sovereignty demands that certain foundational questions, such as the adoption or amendment of a constitution, the secession of a state or the altering of national boundaries, be determined with the directly expressed consent of the people.

Advocates of representative democracy say referendums are used by politicians to avoid making difficult or controversial decisions.

Criticism of populist aspect

Critics of the referendum argue that voters in a referendum are more likely driven by transient whims than careful deliberation, or that they are not sufficiently informed to make decisions on complicated or technical issues. Also, voters might be swayed by strong personalities, propaganda and expensive advertising campaigns. James Madison argued that direct democracy is the "tyranny of the majority."

Some opposition to the referendum has arisen from its use by dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini who, it is argued, used the plebiscite to disguise oppressive policies as populism. Hitler's use of plebiscites is argued as reason why, since World War II, there has been no provision in Germany for the holding of referendums at the federal level.

Patten's criticism

British politician Chris Patten summarized many of the arguments used by those who oppose the referendum in an interview in 2003 when discussing the possibility of a referendum in the United Kingdom on the European Union Constitution:


A further perceived flaw of the referendum is that, in some circumstances, the democratic spirit of the referendum may be flouted by the repeated submission to the referendum of a proposal until it is eventually endorsed, perhaps due to a low turn-out or public fatigue with the issue. This is especially a problem where a proposal may be difficult to reverse, such as secession from a larger country or the abolition of a monarchy. The repeated holding of a referendum on a single issue has been pejoratively referred to as a "never-end-um" by the academic Matt Qvortrup.

Many critics of the EU point to the Treaty of Nice's ratification procedure in Ireland, where the government submitted the Treaty to a referendum twice, getting the required "Yes" vote on the second attempt. This controversy was repeated during the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Closed questions and the separability problem

Some critics of the referendum attack the use of closed questions. A difficulty which can plague a referendum of two issues or more is called the separability problem. If one issue is in fact, or in perception, related to another on the ballot, the imposed simultaneous voting of first preference on each issue can result in an outcome that is displeasing to most.

Undue limitations on regular government power

Several commentators have noted that the use of citizens' initiatives to amend constitutions has so tied the government to a mishmash of popular demands as to render the government unworkable. The Economist has made this point about the US State of California, which has passed so many referendums restricting the ability of the state government to tax the people and pass the budget that the state has become effectively ungovernable. Calls for an entirely new California constitution have been made.[17]


  • Emerson, P J. Defining Democracy puts both two-option and multi-option referendums into their historical context and suggests which are the more accurate measures of "the will of the people". The de Borda Institute is at
  • Emerson Peter, Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy (Springer-Verlag, 2007), describes the Modified Borda Count (MBC), as well as the Quota Borda System (QBS) and the matrix vote.
  • The Federal Authorities of the Swiss Confederation, statistics (German).

See also

Specific referendums

National referendums on the
European Constitution
Czech Republic Cancelled
Denmark Postponed
France No by 55%. 69% turnout.
Ireland Cancelled
Luxembourg Yes by 57%. 88% turnout.
Netherlands No by 62%. 63% turnout.
Poland Postponed
Portugal Postponed
Spain Yes by 77%. 42% turnout.
United Kingdom   Postponed
Parliamentary approvals


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