General Typology of Modern Direct Democracy

Figure 1: Typology of instruments of direct democracy.

The typology which is used here was developed by Rolf Büchi of IRI Europe. It offers a coordinate system, covering all procedures of popular votes on substantive issues. This means that popular votes on persons and parties, like for example recall procedures, are NOT included. The basic structure of the proposed classification is based on the division of popular vote procedures into three different types: initiative, referendum and plebiscite.

The initiative comprises procedures where the author of the ballot proposal is THE SAME as the initiator of the procedure, the referendum procedures where the author of the ballot proposal is NOT the same as the initiator of the procedure. Finally the plebiscite comprises procedures initiated by a representative authority. There exist procedures and practices where elements of different types of procedure are mixed like, for example, the agenda setting initiative. Such procedures are usually the outcome of a compromise between proponents and opponents of direct democracy, often resulting in bad legal design.

Popular vote procedures can be considered as political tools, of which different types can be identified: initiative, referendum and plebiscite. Just like a hammer or screwdriver exists in different forms, also initiative, referendum and plebiscite exist in different forms for different applications. One form of a referendum is for example a referendum triggered by law, another a citizen-initiated referendum. In the following the different forms of popular vote procedures and their characteristics will be described. The term popular vote is used to designate a vote on a substantive political issue made by the voters, as opposed to a vote made by elected representatives. The term does not indicate of what type the designated procedure is, and no particular definition of direct democracy is implied.

On the one hand a typology is needed to avoid confusions in the discussions of direct democracy. Confusions arise when different types of procedures are given the same name, like when the word ‘referendum’ is used indistinguishably for authorities’ controlled popular votes and for real referendums. Inversely a good deal of confusion results if the same procedure is given many different names, for example, if an agenda setting initiative is also called people’s petition, popular initiative and people’s proposition. On the other hand different countries use different juridical terminologies. Without a typology it is not possible to compare the repertoire of popular vote procedures between countries.

The aim of this typology is to classify the really existing procedures in a realistic and not only formal way. The words ‘initiative’ and ‘referendum’ designate two different types of procedures, whose use is controlled by minorities (a group of citizens) except for the obligatory referendum, which is determined by law. The word ‘plebiscite’ is used to designate a third type of procedure: authorities’ controlled popular votes. The distinction between citizen-initiated referendums and authority-initiated plebiscites is crucial; whereas referendums are tools of the people, plebiscites operate as tools of power holders for legitimization and mobilization or for bypassing other representative institutions or for disengaging from tough policies.

What does this typology look like?

This classification of popular vote procedures includes only votes on substantive issues, not on people (like recall elections). It distinguishes popular vote procedures according to who i

  1. the author of the ballot proposal (a group of citizens, a minority of a representative authority, a representative authority)
  2. the initiator of the procedure (a group of citizens, law, a minority of a representative authority, a representative authority).
  3. the decision-maker (the whole electorate, a representative authority).

As a result we get five direct democratic procedures and four procedures, which empower representatives, not citizens. Unlike direct democratic procedures, plebiscites can be binding or merely consultative, in which case the final decision is made by representatives.

Form of procedureCodeType
Citizens' Initiative (1)PCIInitiative
Citizens' Initiative + Authorities' Counter-ProposalPCI+
Citizen-initiated Referendum (2)PCRReferendum
Citizen-initiated Referendum + Counter-ProposalPCR+
Obligatory ReferendumLOR
Authorites' Minority PlebisciteMTP
Authorites' Minority Veto-PlebisciteMVP
Agenda Setting InitiativePAXMixed

(1) Popular Initiative can be used as a synonym of Citizens’ Initiative
(2) Popular Referendum can be used as a synonym of Citizen-initiated Referendum

Code explained

•  First letter = initiator of the procedure
A=Authority, L=Law, M=Minority of an Authority, P=Popular
• Second letter = characteristic feature of the procedure
A=Agenda setting, C=Citizen controlled, O=Obligatory, T=Top-down, V=Veto
• Third letter = type of procedure
I=Initiative, P=Plebiscite, R=Referendum, X=Mixed
• The “+” -sign indicates that the initiative or referendum procedure is combined
       with a counter-proposal.

The procedures are described in detail under INSTRUMENTS