«Often, leaders use direct democracy for reasons of self-interest»

Political scientist David Altman expects the rise of direct democracy around the world to continue. He warns, however, that referendums can be damaging when initiated top-down instead of bottom-up.

David Altman, in 2016, more countries have made use of direct democracy than ever before (siehe Hauptartikel). What are the reasons for this rise?

David Altman.

David Altman.

David Altman:[*] One reason is that if politicians give citizens the possibility to vote on matters directly, it’s extremely difficult to go back. Many countries have introduced instruments of direct democracy in recent years, for example the Netherlands. It’s almost impossible to take away a right from the citizens once they have it. Another reason is that, from the point of view of the politicians, it can be very appealing to resort to instruments of direct democracy.


In most cases, a referendum is initiated not by citizens – as is the case most of the times in Switzerland – , but top-down, which means it’s either a mandatory referendum or a plebiscite called by the government or by the legislature. Often, leaders use direct democracy for reasons of self-interest: They want to mobilise people to strengthen their power base.

So you would say that direct democracy is not always a good thing?

No. Like many things, direct democracy is not per se good or bad – it all depends on how the process is designed. Switzerland is, in my opinion, a positive example. Switzerland is the country that holds by far the most direct democratic votes on the national level of all countries. At the same time, it is also the most consensual political system of all European countries. It might seem paradox that the majoritarian idea is weakest in a country with such a frequent use of the majoritarian instrument of direct democracy, but it’s not: if a law can be put before the people, political actors need to negotiate, discuss and find a solution with the broadest possible support. By the way, exactly the same pattern is observable in Latin America: Uruguay is the country with the most frequent use of direct democracy, and it’s also the country with the most consensual political system.

And what are examples of bad use of direct democracy?

Let’s take the example of Brexit: David Cameron used the plebiscite to resolve a power struggle inside his own party. I don’t think this is a sensible way to use direct democracy. Or take Hungary, where Viktor Orban has used a plebiscite to mobilise his supporters. Such moves can be damaging for the democratic culture in a country.

What do you think of quotas that require a certain turnout for a vote to count?

I think that’s really bad idea. Such quotas open the door for demobilisation campaigns, with which politicians are trying to prevent citizens from voting. This contradicts the republican idea that citizens should participate in a democracy and use their rights.

Do you think that direct democracy will continue to spread around the world or are politicians getting tired of it after recent decisions such as the Brexit vote or the one in Italy?

I am convinced that the rise of direct democracy will continue. As I said, it’s almost impossible to take away rights of the citizens once you given them. Of course plebiscites and other forms of direct democracy can be risky for politicians, but their risk is not for the referendum to take place, but for them to lose it. So they will think more carefully about how to design the bills that they present to the people. But they will not refrain from using direct democracy.


Siehe auch Hauptartikel Direkte Demokratie liegt im Trend


[*] David Altman is Professor of Political Science at the Universidad Católica in Chile and author of the book «Direct Democracy Worldwide».

One response to “«Often, leaders use direct democracy for reasons of self-interest»

  1. Pingback: 10 Jahre Napoleon’s Nightmare | Napoleon's Nightmare

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