Referendum – Concept, types, examples and plebiscite

We explain what a referendum is, how they are classified and various examples. Also, what are the plebiscite and the popular initiative.

The referendum is the typical consultation mechanism of direct and representative democracies.

What is a referendum?

A referendum or referendum is called a legal mechanism for citizen participation, through which any law, administrative act or decision is submitted to popular vote taken to be endorsed by the will of the people. It is the typical consultation mechanism of the direct and representative forms of democracy.

The name of this mechanism comes from the Latin referendum, from the verb refer, that is, “to take back”, since in the political-legal language of Ancient Rome, some matters had to be taken back to the origin of power itself, that is, to the decision of the people, when dealing with difficult issues or compromising. These matters were ad referendum, that is, “to be taken back to town.”

Currently, there are numerous types of referendums, depending on three fundamental perspectives:

According to its objectIn other words, depending on which area the referendum concerns, there can be four types:

  • Constitutional, when they raise an issue related to the constitution or the legal framework.
  • Legal, when they raise an issue linked to a specific law.
  • Revocations, when they raise an issue related to the end of the mandate of a popular representative.
  • Of Independence, when they raise an issue related to the separation of a State from a federation or organization of higher political rank.

According to its foundation, that is, what it proposes or raises, referendums can be of two types:

  • Mandatory, when its celebration is part of a regulation or law, so that they are mandatory for a fair procedure.
  • Optional, when its celebration is optional, depending on the request made by an organization or the people themselves.

According to his character, that is, according to the type of decision requested of the people, the referendums can be of four types:

  • Purposeful, when they serve to propose new laws or regulations.
  • Repeal, when they serve to eliminate any current law.
  • Approving, when they serve to pass laws by popular initiative.
  • Advisory, when they serve to consult popular opinion on an issue, without implying legal obligations of any kind.

Examples of referendum

Brexit referendum examples
The referendum that led to “Brexit” was so surprising that the population asked for it to be repeated.

Some examples of referendums in history have been the following:

  • In Spain in 1986 a referendum was held to consult the people on the membership of that nation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The “Yes” option was endorsed with 56.85% of the votes.
  • In Chile in 1988 A National Plebiscite was held to consult the people on the prolongation of the authoritarian and military government of Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled for 15 years, when he led a bloody coup against the government of Salvador Allende. 54.17% of Chileans voted for the “No” option, thus ending the dictatorship.
  • In Bolivia in 2009 A constitutional referendum was held, drafted and approved by the Bolivian Constituent Assembly and partially modified by the Bolivian Congress, proposing a new constitution for the country. The “Yes” option was the winner with 61.43% of the votes.
  • In 2016 in the UK and Gibraltar a referendum was held on the permanence of the United Kingdom in the European Union, popularly known as “Brexit”. Despite the fact that it was a controversial issue since the 1970s, when the British Commonwealth joined the EU, the vote came as a surprise to the entire world, when 51.9% of voters chose the option of withdrawal. .

Referendum and plebiscite

The difference between a referendum and a plebiscite is not clear, and it usually depends on the legal framework of each country. In some, the two figures are separated by the type of matters that can be put to a popular vote, or by the type of consequences that emanate from each one. Thus, in some countries one will speak of one or the other to refer to certain types of decisions, of a political and administrative nature, or of a legislative type, respectively.

Nevertheless, the colloquial tendency is to use both words interchangeably. It is even common to speak of “plebiscite” to refer to any vote, as a synonym for “suffrage.”

Popular initiative

In some political systems, a popular initiative or citizen initiative is understood to be the permitted intervention of the general population in the legislative conduct of a country, that is, to the possibility for organized citizens to propose bills without having to be an official part of the legislative power.

Thus, directly or indirectly, the population can participate in the treatment of public affairs, logically fulfilling certain requirements that the law establishes, such as the collection of signatures, for example.