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A referendum ( plural referendums, referenda ) is a vote of all citizens entitled to vote on a proposal drawn up by parliament , the government or an institution exercising governmental power . It is therefore an instrument of direct democracy . Since the entire electorate can express themselves directly on a political issue in a referendum , the result of the vote is given a high degree of political legitimacy . Referenda can be used internationally, supranationally or domestically. Their actual significance for political events depends heavily on the political, social and institutional framework in the voting country.

There are also so-called direct democratic initiative procedures, in which the proposal to be voted on comes from the electorate. Instead of referendums in Switzerland, Austria and the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the term referendum is used here; in the rest of Germany, referendum is used. However, especially in everyday language and journalistic use, these terms are often incorrectly used synonymously.


The German word referendum is a foreign word from Latin and is made up of the prefix re “back” and the verb ferre “wear”, “bring”. In a referendum, the decision on a political matter is “carried back” or “brought back” by the elected representative, the parliament, to the sovereign , the people of the state .


In political science , the term referendum is mostly used to denote a popular vote on a proposal drawn up or already adopted by the elected political representative. This usage distinguishes the term referendum from the expression referendum or the referendum, which is usually used to describe a decision initiated by the population on a proposal originating from the population.

  • In the German Basic Law and the constitutions of the federal states , however, this distinction is not made that clear. The term referendum is used for all decisions - including those with a referendum character.
  • In Austria , the term referendum is neither used in the Federal Constitutional Act nor in the constitutions of the federal states .
  • Only in Switzerland is the language of direct democratic instruments clearly based on the question of the authorship of the draft. A referendum is always spoken of when the proposal to be voted on has been drawn up by the elected representative, while the proposal comes from the population and is referred to as a popular initiative .

The difficulties in delineating the term referendum are increased by the fact that the term referendum is used indiscriminately (= synonymously ) in many other languages , regardless of who (elected representation or people) developed the template.

A synonym for referendum used in German and in many other languages ​​is plebiscite .

Forms of referenda

There is a whole series of forms of the referendum, which can be differentiated more ideally according to various aspects (overlapping being the rule):

  • According to the subject of the referendum, i.e. whether it relates to the constitution, a simple legal asset ( law , international treaty ) or the budget .
  • According to the initiator , i.e. whether it is triggered by the government or parliament, the population or the legal system.
  • According to whether a referendum concerns an already effective law or a resolution by parliament or government that has not yet entered into force .
  • According to the binding nature, i.e. whether the result is binding or only recommending.

In the legal reality of a state, the concrete form of the individual referendum forms often deviates slightly, so that mixed forms are more the rule than the exception.

Abrogative referendum

An abrogative referendum serves to repeal (= abrogation) an already valid law . This form of referendum is initiated by the population, and in order to bring it about, a certain number of signatures from voters must be collected. Although it is not legally anchored in Switzerland (exception: referendum for urgent laws), Germany or Austria, it does play an important role in the political system of Italy and some Latin American countries.

Optional and mandatory referendum

Optional referendum

The optional referendum is a voluntary (= optional) vote by citizens on a proposal that has already been approved by the elected representative. To bring about this form of referendum, a certain number of signatures must be collected from eligible voters. This form of referendum is usually initiated by the population, but can sometimes be B. be arranged by a second parliamentary chamber.

Mandatory referendum

A mandatory referendum will be held if this is mandatory (= obligatory) for a specific legal act in the existing legal system of a state. This is mostly the case when a constitution, or at least its essential components or principles, are changed by the elected representation. A mandatory referendum does not need to be initiated separately, but is triggered automatically under certain conditions.

Financial referendum

A financial referendum is a referendum specifically related to budget issues, in which the electorate can decide directly on particularly high public spending . The financial referendum can in principle be combined with any of the aforementioned types of referendum. In political practice, however, it only plays an important role in Switzerland, where it is usually designed as an optional or compulsory financial referendum.

Confirmative referendum

In the case of a confirmative referendum or a simple referendum, the government or parliament presents the population with a template for confirmation (= confirmation) of its own accord. Depending on the state, such a referendum can be initiated by the government or by parliament, whereby the latter usually requires the votes of a certain number of its members (usually a third or half).

Constitutive referendum

A constitutive referendum or constitutional referendum always refers to parts or the entirety of the constitution (= constitution) of a country. In many countries, the implementation of this referendum is compulsory under certain conditions, so that it is often also a mandatory referendum . If a constitutive referendum is not compulsory, it is usually initiated by the government or parliament.

Consultative referendum

A consultative referendum serves to poll (= consultation) the population and has no binding effect. It is usually initiated by the government or parliament, but initiation from the population is also planned in a number of states. In German usage, this procedure is usually referred to as a referendum.

Suspensive referendum

A law that has already been passed but has not yet entered into force or a resolution is kept “pending” (= suspended) through a suspensive referendum. The entry into force is thus postponed for a certain period in which sufficient signatures from eligible voters can be collected for a vote. Regardless of whether a sufficient number of signatures can ultimately be obtained, the suspensive effect applies from the day the referendum is officially registered.

Political Significance and Role of Referenda

The most outstanding characteristic for the political significance of referendums is their high legitimacy. To the same extent that political legitimacy has increasingly been generated via the path of “consent” since the 19th century with the advancing global democratization , and older reference points for political legitimacy such as “godliness” or “military superiority” are in retreat Referendum instrument growing in importance. Since in a referendum the entire electorate can always express itself directly on a political question, the final result is endowed with the highest conceivable degree of “approval” legitimacy.

Securitized direct democratic bottom-up procedures at national level

Bottom-up referendums 1874–2009 *

country number proportion of
Switzerland 336 62.6%
Italy 62 11.5%
Liechtenstein   56 10.4%
San Marino 14th 2.6%
Uruguay 11 2.0%
Latvia 10 1.9%
Lithuania 9 1.7%
Hungary 7th 1.3%
Palau 5 0.9%
Slovakia 5 0.9%
New Zealand 4th 0.7%
Taiwan 4th 0.7%
Ukraine 4th 0.7%
Slovenia 3 0.6%
(Estonia ** ) 2 0.4%
Georgia 1 0.2%
Colombia 1 0.2%
Macedonia 1 0.2%
Serbia 1 0.2%
Venezuela 1 0.2%
total   537

* 38 countries worldwide, in 20 of which bottom-up referenda took place (1874–2009)

** 1923 and 1933, today the Estonian constitution does not recognize such rights

Empirical studies prove the importance of a lived social and political culture on the effect of direct democratic , participatory instruments, processes and procedures. Depending on who initiates these processes, with what intentions and goals, and with whom the power and decisions lie, they can:

  • either serve to (further) concentrate or maintain political power,
  • or play a role in the competition of political parties for electoral favor,
  • or the citizens, the civil society further, or new, empowerment (citizen empowerment) , contribute decisively to the (real, full) citizen participation / participation.

For example, Uwe Serdülle and Yanina Welp in Direct Democracy Upside Down (Direct Democracy Upside Down) , analysis and comparison of "bottom-up" referendums at national level in all countries worldwide in the period 1874–2009. Such referendums are certified in 38 countries, but have only taken place (at least once) or take place (more often) in 20 countries. The authors limit their investigation to "bottom-up" referenda actively initiated by citizens and civil society, in contrast to other authors who take the term wider. In the years 1874–2009, 537 bottom-up referendums took place - in the individual countries as shown in the table on the right.

Historically, also called "top-down" methods, such as "top-down" referendums, with time more and more to citizen involvementparticipation ( co-determination , co-decision, participation, involvement) lead.

Referendums at national, federal, international and supranational level

Referendums at national and federal level

The most frequent and most important application of referendums within a state - especially in democracies - concerns the recognition of a constitution which one would like to give the highest possible degree of legitimation in this way. In this context, referendums can take on the role of an identity-creating founding act in a state. In Germany, for example, the constitutions of the federal states of Hesse and Bavaria were presented to the population for voting in a referendum in 1946.

Beyond acts of founding a state, referendums are one of the seldom used political instruments in most states. As a rule, they are convened to vote on changes to the constitution, socially extremely controversial legislative proposals, treaties under state or international law and international agreements - i.e. decisions that fundamentally influence the further course of a state and presumably for a longer period of time. An example of this is the referendum in Brazil on the ban on the arms trade from 2005. At the request of civil society , the Brazilian government drafted a corresponding law with the aim of curbing the high level of violent crime in this way. However, about 64% of those entitled to vote voted against the bill in the referendum.

If referendums are not mandatory, several reasons can be given as to why a government consciously decides to use the referendum as a political instrument. The subject of the vote can be so controversial in society that a democratic government - which is initially only legitimized by its own voters - wants to create the greatest possible basis of legitimation for the expected social conflicts over the decision by means of a referendum. Especially in countries with very strong or very one-sided parliaments sent by certain social groups, the referendum can be an opportunity for the government to implement its political projects, even if a clear majority in parliament is against it.

In countries with a very weak parliament, on the other hand, the referendum may be an opportunity for parliamentarians to prevail against an overly strong government. Sometimes referendums are initiated by a parliamentary minority who use this instrument as an opportunity for active politics from the opposition.

Referendums at international level

Call for participation in the referendum on the independence of Transnistria (2006)

At the international level, referendums are used primarily on questions of sovereignty and territoriality . Again and again, decisions about the sovereignty or autonomy of national minorities or decisions about the membership of a certain, usually populated territory to a state are made via referendum. The advantage of this procedure is that, in contrast to a military solution to the respective question, it saves human life and places the decision in the hands of all those directly affected, i.e. it can prevent possible distortion by special interests of social elites . Since every vote counts equally, a referendum creates a fair starting point that is independent of military and social power relations. The high legitimacy of a referendum also ensures that the chance for all groups involved to respect the voting result is increased, since disregarding it is usually associated with high opportunity costs . An indispensable prerequisite for the aforementioned effects is, however, that the referendum follows the principles of free elections . In order to ensure this and to underline the legitimacy of the procedure again, observers are mostly sent from all interested parties as well as from neutral parties. After more than 30 years of civil war , Eritrea was able to enforce its independence from Ethiopia by means of a referendum in 1993 . The implementation of the referendum was monitored by the international community through voting observers.

In order for a referendum to be used as a political instrument, its acceptance by all parties involved in the run-up to the vote is imperative. If this is not the case, a referendum either cannot take place at all or is boycotted by one of the sides , which significantly weakens its legitimacy.

In Europe there are two examples where a referendum is called for by one side but denied or boycotted by the other. In the Basque Country , a referendum on independence from Spain has been called for for many decades , which the Spanish government has always refused. Parts of the Basque forces who are campaigning for independence justify their continuation of the armed struggle against the Spanish state, among other things, with the refusal of this referendum.

In Transnistria , a formally part of Moldova but de facto independent territory on the Dniester , a referendum was held in 2006 on independence from Moldova and accession to the Russian Federation . Although the overwhelming majority of those who voted were in favor of the secession from Moldova, both Moldova and a number of other states rejected the referendum in advance, so that there was no change in the political status of Transnistria.

If the resolution of a territorial or sovereignty conflict is considered indispensable for the international order, or if there is no generally recognized government due to a previous war or civil war , referendums are sometimes called by communities of states such as the UN or another supranational organization. An example of this is the referendum held in 1999 on the independence of East Timor . The majority of those who voted spoke in favor of independence from Indonesia , whereupon this was actually implemented and has since been recognized by most states.

At the international level, mostly confirmative referenda without quorums are held.

Referendums at the supranational level

Irish government poster promoting ratification of the Lisbon Treaty (2009)

At the supranational level, referenda primarily play a role in the transfer of individual sovereignty rights to supranational institutions. This may, for example, questions of monetary policy , the foreign policy or the prosecution to be.

In Europe, there were referendums in a number of countries on the question of whether the respective country should join or leave the EU or one of its predecessor communities, on the introduction of the euro or the recognition of the Lisbon Treaty . In the 1972 vote , the people of Norway voted against accession of the country to the EEC and in the 1994 vote against accession of the country to the EU. The Danish population rejected the introduction of the euro in 2000, and the Swiss citizens voted in a referendum in 2005 in favor of Switzerland's accession to the Schengen Agreement .

The referendums held in France , the Netherlands and Ireland on the recognition of the EU Constitutional Treaty and the subsequent Treaty of Lisbon were of particular importance . Due to the principle of unanimity , this could only become valid if it had been recognized by all EU member states . In all three states the citizens voted against the ratification of the treaty. In France and the Netherlands, however, only consultative referenda were held on this issue, and the respective governments or parliaments subsequently ratified the treaty despite the negative vote of its citizens. In Ireland, on the other hand, it was a mandatory and therefore binding referendum. The government was expressly forbidden from ratifying the treaty by the population. Due to the significance of this negative vote for the entire EU and the immense political pressure associated with it, the Irish government called a second referendum on the question of ratification in 2009, which this time was approved by the population.

The electorate of the United Kingdom agreed during the 1975 referendum for a stay in the European Economic Community . Accordingly, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, no majority of eligible voters voted for the United Kingdom to leave the EU .

Abuse of referendums

The high legitimacy of a referendum repeatedly exposes this instrument to the risk of abuse. In dictatorships in particular , those in power can be tempted to give themselves the appearance of democratic legitimacy by holding a referendum, both towards their own people and towards the international community of states. In defective democracies , referendums are sometimes used as a lever to shift the balance of powers .

Referendum in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 ; Propaganda images should suggest a high level of participation in order to "legitimize" the armed militias

A wide variety of methods can be used to influence the outcome of a referendum in the desired way. Not all of these means are illegal in all states, and unless there are serious violations of the principles of free choice, it is sometimes difficult to precisely distinguish between legitimate voting campaigns and abusive methods. If, for example, in the run-up to a referendum, only one of the two sides has sufficient financial and organizational means to publicly advertise their concerns through posters, rallies, etc., the risk of distorting the result is present, but hardly with legal means Contest funds.

Sometimes two completely different questions are linked in a referendum, so that the voters only have the option to agree to both points or to reject both. In this way an attempt can be made to make an actually unpopular measure “palatable” to the population. To prevent this, some - but not all - states stipulate that a referendum may only ever refer to one item of vote, or that the questions to be voted on can be answered separately with "Yes" or "No" ( Switzerland: principle of “unity of matter”).

An attempt at abuse becomes a little clearer when a suggestive voting question is asked in the referendum . Since in most forms of referendum the government decides on the formulation of the question to be voted on, an attempt can be made to achieve a majority for the desired result through a nested or tendentious question or through a specific (typographic) graphic design of the voting slip. In this context, the referendum on the status of Crimea was mentioned many times : The international lawyer Anne Peters described the process , which did not meet the requirements of the Venice Commission , as an "abuse of the referendum instrument" due to the lack of choice .

Going one step further, threats, the use of force or formal legal exclusion can ensure that political opponents are deterred from participating in the vote, thereby distorting the result in your own favor. The most far-reaching and most obvious step is, of course, to falsify the entire vote .

The suggestively designed voting slip on the annexation of Austria to the German Reich (1938)

An example of such a use of the referendum is the vote held in 1938 on the annexation of Austria to the German Reich , in which all of the aforementioned measures were taken to manipulate the result. During the vote, the question of the "Anschluss" was linked to the question of choosing the NSDAP list for the Reichstag. The formulation of the voting question was suggestive - use of the you form, use of the term “reunification” - as well as the design of the ballot paper - the “yes” field is in the middle and is larger. Opponents of the project were not allowed to post posters or advertise their position in any other way, were additionally exposed to physical repression or were excluded from voting by decree. In many places it was not possible to vote in secret in voting booths, but instead the voting took place in public under the eyes of sympathizers of the NSDAP. Last but not least, if the participation in the vote is over 99% with a vote of more than 99% "yes", it can be assumed with a probability bordering on certainty that voting is fraudulent.

In addition to obviously abusive referendums, the accusation of “abuse of referendum” is repeatedly used as a political battle term when a political force tries to push through its political agenda against a strong opposition by means of a referendum.

For example, the allegation of an abusive referendum on June 28, 2009 in Honduras led to a coup and the disempowerment of the democratically elected President Manuel Zelayas . On that day, he wanted to hold a consultative referendum on the question of whether a referendum on the convening of a constituent assembly should take place at the same time as the 2010 regular elections . The country's Supreme Court had ruled that the consultative referendum would be illegal a few days earlier. Zelaya's political opponents interpreted his adherence to the vote as an attempt to use the referendum to undermine the constitutional order of the country and overthrew  his government - presumably also unconstitutionally - with the help of the military . Even if a majority of states around the world clearly condemned the coup, there has so far been no unanimous opinion as to whether the non-binding referendum planned by Zelaya would have been legal. In view of the great domestic and international tensions surrounding the process, a neutral answer to this question seems difficult.

Design of the referendum law in the German-speaking countries


Switzerland is the motherland of the modern referendum (see: History of the referendum ). The referendum there (alongside the right of initiative ) is one of the pillars of the Swiss concordance democracy with its principle of collegiality , since both legislative and executive activity without support appears to be excluded from a majority of the population.

Through the referendum right, the Swiss parliaments at all levels are required to find a compromise between all major interest groups when passing or changing the law. In the case of an optional referendum, however, this only applies if the opponents of the planned law are strong enough to collect the necessary signatures and there is a chance that the referendum against the law will find a majority in the forced referendum . The referendum threat is often a powerful weapon that is already used in the pre-parliamentary stage and in parliamentary deliberations. A viable result is usually accompanied by a general average dissatisfaction; this means that the left often refrains from a referendum if the right is also not enthusiastic about the new law, and vice versa.

The right of referendum in Switzerland has a veto-like character, historically it emerged from the veto right, and it is therefore assigned a delaying and preserving effect for the political process by blocking changes originating from parliament or the government or delaying their entry into force. The Swiss referendum law is therefore often referred to as the “brake in the hands of the people” and seen as a complementary counterpart to the popular initiative, the “engine of politics”. In particular, the frequent referendums on financial issues have a positive effect on the efficiency of state activity and demonstrably improve distributive justice.

Historically, the term referendum was used in Switzerland for any form of direct democratic voting. This is unusual today. In the course of the 20th century, the expression plebiscite became established for votes that were initiated by the population (popular initiative) .


At the federal level, Switzerland knows the mandatory and the optional referendum. All changes to the Swiss Federal Constitution , but also a number of federal resolutions and membership of organizations for collective security or supranational communities are subject to a mandatory referendum. The change must be in the vote from both a plurality of voters ( people more ) also in the majority of cantons (as objects more accepted). The same applies in the event of a total revision of the constitution.

Federal laws , certain federal decrees and certain international treaties are subject to an optional referendum. These are usually taken by interest groups from the population, but can also be carried out by the cantons as part of a so-called canton referendum . However, the latter has only happened once (2003). A referendum is held following an optional referendum if at least 50,000 voters or eight cantons have requested it within 100 days. A popular majority is sufficient to accept such a proposal.


In the Swiss cantons, too, the referendum law has been extensively expanded, in some cases even more extensive than at the federal level, although the specific design can differ greatly. Five cantons, for example, have a mandatory referendum for simple laws, but this usually only applies under certain conditions or for certain questions. With the exception of the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden , in which laws are passed directly by the Landsgemeinde , all cantons are familiar with the optional referendum for simple laws. At the cantonal and communal level, in addition to the referendum made possible by collecting signatures, there is also a referendum from authorities, in which a qualified minority of the relevant parliament - 45 out of 180 members in the canton of Zurich - or a certain number of communes can force a referendum.

A special feature of the Swiss cantons is the financial referendum , which exists in all cantons - but not at the federal level. In the event of unusually high government spending, citizens have the opportunity to vote on them in a referendum. This is unusual in that Switzerland is the only country in which the state's spending policy is covered by a formal referendum law. In the cantons of Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Schwyz , the financial referendum is only compulsory, in eleven others it is only optional and in the remaining cantons it has both options.


Most of the almost 2,300 Swiss municipalities also have extensive options for referendums, but the precise structure is even more inconsistent than at the cantonal level. The canton's municipal law usually provides framework specifications for the respective referendum law, but some of these can also be adjusted in the municipal statutes.

In principle, the municipalities are familiar with the same instruments as the cantons with the mandatory, facultative and financial referendums. In almost all municipalities in Switzerland, changes to the municipal statutes are subject to a mandatory referendum, but mostly only for a few matters. In a few municipalities, the amount of the tax rate is also subject to the mandatory referendum.

In everyday political life, the optional referendum plays a much larger role, with which resolutions of the elected municipal council, and more rarely also resolutions of the municipal administration, can be submitted to the people's vote. One can roughly distinguish between three groups of municipalities: in the first group the optional referendum can be applied to all resolutions of the municipal council, in the second group the area of ​​application is completely regulated in the municipal statutes, in the third and smallest group a final list is determined, which matters are subject to the optional referendum.

The optional referendum can always be triggered by collecting signatures from the people, but in many cases also by the votes of a certain proportion of the elected representatives (referendum to authorities). In most municipalities, a majority of votes of the elected representatives is necessary for this, it thus takes on the character of a confirmative referendum set by parliament. In some cases, an optional referendum can also be called for by the minority in an elected representation or, in the case of municipalities without a parliament, by a certain number of voters present at a municipal assembly, which makes it a possible veto instrument for the opposition.

Just as at the cantonal level, all municipalities are familiar with the financial referendum, with which high one-off or recurring expenses are subjected to a vote by the people. Some municipalities know the financial referendum in mandatory, some in optional, some others in turn in both forms.


In Germany, the referendum law is generally very poorly developed and is of greater importance for everyday political life at the municipal level. At the federal and state level, referendums are almost exclusively intended to regulate constitutional and territorial issues.

Federal Republic

In the Federal Republic of Germany , the referendum system at the federal level is only very poorly developed and almost insignificant for actual politics. The Basic Law knows both the compulsory and the constitutive referendum, but both types of referendum are only permitted for very special and rare questions. In the case of the drafting of a constitution ( Article 146 of the Basic Law ), for example, a constitutive referendum is mandatory, but this did not come about after German reunification, despite the corresponding political considerations . In addition, a mandatory referendum is required in the case of the reorganization of the federal territory , i.e. when federal states are amalgamated or split up. This occurred in the Federal Republic of Germany in 1952 when the federal state of Baden-Württemberg was founded and when the federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg were planned to be merged, but rejected by the population in 1996 . In addition, the Basic Law also recognizes the instrument of referendums in the case of territorial reorganizations , which despite this designation is not a consultative referendum, but has binding effect. The instrument of the referendum has never been used in the Federal Republic.

The confirmative referendum on the status of the state held in Saarland in 1955 - which at that time did not yet belong to Germany - was of particular significance for the Federal Republic . The population of Saarland decided on the question of whether the Saarland, which had existed as an autonomous state-like entity since 1949 after the time as the French occupation zone , but remained linked to a customs and currency union with France , should become an extra-state special territory of the Western European Union under the European Saar Statute . In the vote, 67.7% of those entitled to vote were against, whereupon the Saarland government began negotiations with the German federal government and finally joined the Federal Republic of Germany on January 1, 1957.

Federal states

At the federal state level , the importance of referendums varies greatly from country to country. In the context of the establishment of the Federal Republic and later the accession of the East German states to the federal territory, the respective state constitution was put to a vote in some federal states by way of the constitutive referendum of the population. Only in the federal states of Hesse and Bavaria are constitutional referenda generally mandatory. In Bavaria, for example, there have already been ten mandatory referenda on the state constitution, including the vote on the establishment of the Free State (see People's Legislation in Bavaria ), while in Hesse seven so-called “referendums” have been held on the state constitution. The federal state of Berlin also knows mandatory referendums, but only in the special case that Articles 62 or 63 of the state constitution are changed, in which direct democracy is regulated at the state level (see people's legislation in Berlin ). The only referendum to date was held in Berlin in 2006. In some other federal states (e.g. Baden-Württemberg , North Rhine-Westphalia , Rhineland-Palatinate ) the government or parliament can call a confirmative referendum under certain conditions. However, this option was first used by Baden-Württemberg in 2011 as part of the dispute over Stuttgart 21 . The federal state of Hamburg plays a special role as it is the only one in Germany to offer the possibility of an optional referendum. This instrument was introduced in 2007 through a referendum , but has only been used once so far (see people's legislation in Hamburg ).


All federal states in Germany have had referendums at the municipal level since 2005. With the so-called council request , municipal representatives can submit questions to the population for a binding vote in a confirmative referendum. In some federal states there is also or instead the option of non-binding citizen surveys , i.e. consultative referendums at community level. The exact design of both types of referendum in the municipalities varies depending on the federal state and the municipal statutes . From 1956 to the end of 2017, a total of 7,503 proceedings (petitions for citizens and councils) took place.


Nowadays Austria has a moderately developed right of referendum, but this is only rarely used in practice. In the past, in public discourse, particularly on issues relating to the European Union, the demand was repeatedly raised that these be resolved by confirmative referendum.

Federal level

In founding of the Republic, a mandatory referendum was originally only in two cases (in Austria referendum called) provided: in case of a total change of the Federal Constitution and in the premature dismissal of the President. In addition, a referendum on a legislative resolution must be held if the National Council so decides. There were referendums in Austria in 1978 on the question of the peaceful use of nuclear energy and in 1994 on Austria's accession to the European Union; according to the prevailing opinion, when joining the European Union it was a matter of an overall amendment to the federal constitution. A referendum on the removal of the Federal President has never been used.

After there was a social debate about the further development of democracy at the beginning of the 1970s, further direct democratic instruments were introduced in Austria. With the instrument of the referendum , parliament can submit a political question to the people for decision in a non-binding manner, i.e. by means of a consultative referendum. The only nationwide poll took place in 2013 on the introduction of a professional army.

Federal states

The design of the referendum law differs greatly between the Austrian federal states. While Burgenland , Styria , Upper and Lower Austria do not provide for any referenda in the state constitutions, in Vienna , for example, the legal structure largely corresponds to the federal level. In Tyrol , the government can only schedule consultative referendums, whereas the state parliament can also schedule confirmatory referendums, while mandatory referendums are completely unknown. The state of Salzburg, on the other hand, only knows the mandatory referendum in the case of a total revision of the state constitution, while a confirmative referendum can already be decided by a minority of a third of the MPs. In Vorarlberg and Carinthia , confirmative referendums can be decided by the state parliament. Carinthia, on the other hand, only has an obligatory referendum in the case of the dissolution of a municipality , which is then only carried out there. In Vorarlberg, on the other hand, the mandatory referendum is provided for the dissolution of the state, the narrowing of the territory, as well as changes to the articles of the state constitution that deal with the development of direct democracy.

Overall, referendums only play a very minor role in the Austrian federal states. Only in the Province of Vienna occurred in recent decades, notably through referendums , to a relatively intensive use of referendums.

local community


The “constitutional hereditary monarchy” of Liechtenstein has known referendums since the constitution of 1921, the scope of which was expanded in 1992 and 2003 through reforms. A special feature of Liechtenstein is that the prince has a far-reaching right of veto - if he refuses to sign a resolution within six months of the conclusion of a resolution, it does not come into force. Against this background, all referendums in Liechtenstein always have a consultative character, even if they are initially binding on the Liechtenstein parliament, the state parliament. Today, Liechtenstein knows the confirmative, the facultative, the mandatory and the financial referendum.

The scope of the mandatory referendum has been gradually expanded since 1921. Initially, it only applied to extreme tax increases (increase by 1.5 times); since 2003, disputes regarding the appointment of judges and the possible abolition of the monarchy have also come under the mandatory referendum. Since 1921, the state parliament has been able to submit a proposal to the people in a confirmative referendum for a resolution with a majority of its votes. The optional referendum was only introduced in 1992 and initially only applied to international treaties , and since 2003 also to constitutional amendments. The optional financial referendum was also introduced in 1992, which can be used for one-off expenses of CHF 500,000 or recurring expenses of CHF 250,000.

Design of the right of referendum in other countries


In France, the constitution of the Fifth French Republic of 1958 applies (before that there were several other constitutions of France ).

By constitutional law of 23 July 2008, Article 88-5 of this constitution was amended as follows:

"Article 88-5. Every draft law authorizing the ratification of a treaty on the accession of a state to the European Union and the European Communities is put to a referendum by the President of the Republic. However, by a motion adopted by each chamber with a majority of three fifths of the members with the same wording, Parliament may allow the adoption of the bill in accordance with the procedure provided for in the third paragraph of Article 89. "


The Greek Constitution of June 9, 1975

said in

Article 44. (1) In exceptional cases of extremely urgent and unforeseen emergency, the President of the Republic may adopt legislative acts on the proposal of the Council of Ministers. These are submitted to Parliament for approval within 40 days of their adoption or within 40 days of the convening of Parliament in accordance with the provisions of Article 72 (1). If they are not submitted to parliament within a certain period of time or are not approved by parliament within three months of their submission, they will expire in the future.

Until 1986 paragraph 2 consisted of only one sentence, namely

"(2) The President of the Republic can order the holding of a referendum on urgent national questions by ordinance."

By law of March 12, 1986, paragraph 2 was amended as follows:

“(2) The President of the Republic can, after a resolution of the absolute majority of the deputies, which is passed on the proposal of the Council of Ministers, call for a referendum on particularly important national questions. The President of the Republic can, by ordinance, call for a referendum on already adopted bills on important social issues - except when they concern public finances - if this is done by three fifths of the total number of deputies on the proposal of two fifths in accordance with the rules of procedure of parliament and the Act to apply this paragraph has been passed. No more than two referendums on bills may be held during a parliamentary term. If a bill is adopted, the period of Article 42 paragraph 1 begins with the implementation of the referendum. "

On November 1, 2011, the Greek Prime Minister Papandreou announced, completely surprising, that he would put the vote of confidence in parliament at short notice and that he was planning a referendum on the current resolutions of the recent Euro Summit in Brussels on aid to Greece (see EFSF ). On November 2, it was announced that the vote would take place on December 4 or 5, 2011.

Obviously, such a referendum would violate Article 44 (2) because it 'affects public finances'; Papandreou's announcement caused irritation and rejection.

Other countries

There is a possibility of holding a referendum in a large number of countries around the world. Both the legal form of the respective referendum law and the political-practical significance of the instrument are largely shaped by the historical, constitutional and political framework conditions of the respective state. Against this background, generalized statements on the status of the global referendum system are hardly possible, and a consideration of the individual case is essential. The constitutive referendum is the most widespread form worldwide and can be found in almost all states that have a referendum right.

History of the referendum

The modern referendum initially prevailed in Switzerland in the wake of the bourgeois revolution of the 19th century, largely inspired by Karl Bürkli and the Zurich Democratic Movement . The introduction of the Volksvetos in 1831 in the canton of St. Gallen was considered a pioneering achievement in this regard.

As a result, however, the introduction of the people's rights also had a considerable impact on the democratic left throughout Europe and in the USA , even if it relatively soon became clear that the electorate, as sovereign, tends to make conservative and conservative decisions. The introduction of direct democratic instruments in Oregon can be traced back to Swiss influence. The Swiss referendum democracy also set an example for the constitution of the Weimar Republic .

The international spread of the referendum system since the 19th century has mostly taken place in the wake of global democratization . A final wave of democratization could be observed in Europe in the 1970s, 80s and 1990s. At the beginning of the 21st century, referendums became increasingly important for political practice , especially in Latin America .


Especially in a referendum that changes a status quo, a 50% decision by the people may be too marginal, as this has a constitutional-changing character and therefore requires a 2/3 or 3/4 majority. As an example with Brexit , a regular referendum could justify entering and leaving the EU depending on the mood of the population at the time of the survey.

Alternatively, the significance of a lost referendum should be examined more closely. In Quebec has already voted twice about leaving the Canadian community and lost. If the limit is 50%, it could be argued that two more positive votes have to neutralize the negative ones before the status quo is changed.

In the case of efforts to split off in Catalonia, it is important to consider who would be entitled to vote. Only the Catalan population, which begs the question of how to define this: descent or residence? Or the Spanish nation as a whole, as the territory is considered Spanish until the split.

See also


  • David Butler, Austin Ranney: Referendums Around the World. The Growing Use of Direct Democracy . AEI Press, Washington DC 1994, ISBN 0-8447-3853-0 (English).
  • Theodor Curti : The results of the Swiss referendum . Wyss, Bern 1911, DNB  580827496 .
  • Theodor Curti: History of the Swiss people's legislation. At the same time a story of Swiss democracy . 2nd Edition. TH. Schröter, Zurich 1885.
  • Hermann K. Heussner, Otmar Jung (ed.): Dare to dare more direct democracy. Referendum and referendum: history, practice, proposals . 3. Edition. Olzog, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-7892-8352-9 .
  • Bruno Kaufmann, Rolf Büchi, Nadja Braun: Guidebook to Direct Democracy in Switzerland and beyond . Ed .: Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe. 4th edition. 2010, ISBN 978-3-940716-03-3 (English).
  • Moritz Rittinghausen : Direct legislation by the people . 4th edition. Self-published, Cologne 1877, DNB  56083215X (previously published as Social-Democratic Treatises).
  • Robert Schediwy : Empirical Politics. Chances and limits of a more democratic society . Europaverlag, Vienna / Munich / Zurich 1980, ISBN 3-203-50732-3 .
  • James William Sullivan: Direct Legislation by the Citizenship through the Initiative and Referendum . tredition, Hamburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-8491-4929-1 (English, unaltered reprint of the original (public domain) from 1893).
  • Jos Verhulst, Arjen Nijeboer: Direct Democracy. Facts, arguments, experiences . Ed .: Democracy International. Brussels 2007, ISBN 978-90-78820-02-4 ( PDF ).

Web links

Commons : Referendum  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Referendum  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Uwe Serdäne , Yanina Welp: Direct Democracy Upside Down (PDF on, Taiwan Journal of Democracy 01/08, July 2012, pp 69–92
  2. a b Serdülle, Uwe and Welp, Yanina (2012) Direct Democracy Upside Down, Taiwan Journal of Democracy, 8 (1), 69-92 , commentary, summary of November 13, 2011, on Uwe Serdäne's blog , uweserdult.wordpress .com
  3. Serdält / Welp (2002), pp. 70ff
  4. Serdält / Welp (2002), p. 76.
  5. Brazilians vote in a referendum against a ban on the arms trade. In: Welt-online. October 25, 2005.
  6. dpa: Basque referendum prohibited. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung. October 16, 2007.
  7. ^ Independence referendum: Transnistria wants to join Russia. In: Wikinews. September 19, 2006.
  8. Resolution 1246 of the UN Security Council on the holding of a referendum on the independence of East Timor, June 11, 1999.
  9. ^ Royal Norwegian Embassy: Referenda. last accessed on May 13, 2010.
  10. Euro still held up well before the Denmark referendum. In: Handelsblatt. online, September 27, 2000.
  11. ↑ The Swiss say yes to Schengen. In: Spiegel-online. June 5, 2005.
  12. EU referendum: high voter turnout in France. In: Spiegel-online. May 29, 2005.
  13. Constitutional referendum: The Dutch clearly say “No”. ( Memento from August 1, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) on: June 2, 2005.
  14. Black day for the EU: Irish apparently reject the EU treaty. on: , June 13, 2008.
  15. ^ The Crimean Vote of March 2014 as an Abuse of the Institution of the Territorial Referendum. Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law; University of Basel - Faculty of Law, July 8, 2014.
  16. ^ Honduras: Coup against President Zelaya. on: June 28, 2009.
  17. ^ Steven L. Taylor: The Exact Text of the Zelaya Plebiscite. ( Memento from July 5, 2009 in the web archive ) Entry on from June 30, 2009.
  18. a b Bernard Degen : Referendum. In: Historical Lexicon of Switzerland .
  19. ^ Andreas Kley: Veto. In: Historical Lexicon of Switzerland .
  20. ^ Andi Gross quoted by Paul Tiefenbach in: How referendums affect public budgets. Chaos or redevelopment? ( Memento from October 11, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Verein Mehr Demokratie e. V., position paper 10
  21. Article 141 of the Swiss Federal Constitution.
  22. Overview of the cantonal referendum regulations (PDF; 146 kB) on the website of
  23. Art. 33, Para. 2c of the Constitution of the Canton of Zurich
  24. cf. Philipp Karr: Institutions of direct democracy in the municipalities of Germany and Switzerland. Pp. 92-113.
  25. z. B. Art. 86, Para. 3 of the Constitution of the Canton of Zurich
  26. Overview of the referendums carried out so far , State Returning Officer Hessen (PDF), accessed on November 6, 2012.
  27. Citizens' Initiative Report 2018 by Mehr Demokratie
  28. full text (German translation)
  30. ^ Riddles about Papandreou's motives. - Is he tired of his office, is he surrendering to the crisis? A vote of confidence and a referendum could have dramatic consequences for Giorgos Papandreou. on: , November 1, 2011.
  31. ^ Geoffrey Marshall: The referendum: what, when and how? In: Parliamentary Affairs . 50.2, 1997, p. 307+
  32. Steven L. Piott: Giving voters a voice: The origins of the initiative and referendum in America. University of Missouri, 2003.
  33. Mads Qvortrup: AV Dicey: the referendum as the people's veto. In: History of Political Thought. 20.3, 1999, pp. 531-546.