Referenda: a defense against populism?


Author: Wolfgang Dick

Posted: 5/12/2016


The German people were not asked. Not about the introduction of the euro. Not about contracts with the European Union. Not about candidates for the office of federal president. And not about how to deal with 1 million refugees.

To date, there is no provision in the German constitution for ordinary people to intervene in important issues of national policy and correct things they don’t agree with. Referenda have not been held at the national level since they enabled Hitler’s rise to power under the Weimar Republic. The German constitution, laid down after World War II, only allows Germans to choose every four years between the parties approved to stand in the election. The elected parties then make all the decisions as representatives of the electorate. This system is called representative democracy.

Anyone who doesn’t just want to vote for a party every four years has to get politically involved themselves. The only option they have is to find a party whose political line is most closely aligned with theirs and join it. If there is no party “on the market” that represents their views, they may decide to start a party or citizens’ initiative of their own. Until 2015, all the existing political parties were unanimously in favor of taking in refugees. Counter-movements such as the right-wing extremist Pegida and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) were able to capitalize on this by providing a focus for dissenting voices.


Volker Beck of the non-governmental organization “Mehr Demokratie” (More Democracy) believes these phenomena might not exist at all if Germany had national referenda. And he’s not alone. Almost all leading political scientists agree. Beck says there’s an urgent need for some kind of escape valve: “First, to put on the agenda the topics that politics is failing to address. But also as a way of stopping policies, correcting policies.”

According to the experts, if a country does not hold referenda, or it’s too difficult to meet the requirements to do so, this plays into the hands of populists, who formulate and demand radical changes. This is the threat posed by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen in France.

Viewing the people as dangerous

Plenty of events recently have stoked fears that referenda could result in bad political decisions. An asylum-seekers’ hostel burns,and people stand in front of it applauding. A right-wing populist party – the AfD – is voted into numerous state parliaments. These developments are certainly part of the reason why the CDU balks at the idea of referenda at national level.

The local branch of the CDU in the southern German town of Ravensburg has proposed a motion that the CDU should stick by the position it has held for decades. However, it’s now the only party to do so. All the others represented in the Bundestag – the SPD, the Left and the Greens – are in favor of a national referendum. And a recent poll of the membership of the conservative CDU’s sister party, the CSU, revealed that 68.8 percent were in favor of a referendum being included in the manifesto. They believe that “public participation stabilizes the political system.”

Experiences in Bavaria

In November the Bavarian constitutional court rejected the non-binding public poll introduced by the CSU in Bavaria in March 2015, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. However, this only prevents such polls from being conducted by the government. Citizens are still free to conduct them themselves.

Since 1946, more referenda have been held in Bavaria than in any other German state. They have resulted in numerous decisions that were presumably not welcomed by the governing CSU – the majority decision to ban smoking in public places, for example.


In an interviewed with DW, Bavaria’s Interior Minister, Joachim Herrmann, took a positive view: “With referenda like these we sensed that ultimately there was a clear acceptance.” Even on controversial issues, he said, if there was a majority decision, it was accepted by those who lost: “So we don’t see any negative developments in our state as a result of all the plebiscites.”

“Good” and “bad” methods of holding referenda

A majority of leading political scientists are in favor of referenda if they are subject to legal monitoring by the constitutional court and by parliament. Any proposed referendum would have to be compatible with the German Basic Law. This would mean that citizens would not be allowed take decisions on whether Germany should leave the EU, for example, or whether or not to introduce the death penalty.

Functioning referenda can either be initiated “from below” – meaning from the people themselves – or “from above,” i.e. from the government. Professor Frank Decker of the University of Bonn favors the latter. “There’s a problem with proceedings that are initiated from below: It’s usually minorities who trigger these proceedings. And these are, above all, opposition minorities.”

Everhard Holtmann from the University of Halle-Wittenberg adds that direct democracy is much more vulnerable to influence from interest groups and that elites are more likely to profit. “Empirical studies show that it’s the people with healthy resources, who have a relatively good income, a good education, and who also are also reasonably socially confident, who are most likely to participate in plebiscites,” he said. Socially weaker groups, he explained, got left behind.


Referenda require citizens to get more involved

All the proponents of referenda agree that they shouldn’t replace the representative system; they should only complement it. The model developed by Volker Beck’s organization “Mehr Demokratie” is currently the most popular.

However, Beck warns that “with direct democracy, you can’t do things in a hurry.” The idea is that there should be a kind of “ping-pong” procedure, where the issue is batted back and forth between the people and the parliament in three stages. First the people apply for a referendum. If the required number of votes are reached, the referendum is held. The result is forwarded to the Bundestag, which is allowed to put forward alternative proposals for a compromise solution. Finally, the people vote on this proposal. The advantage of these proceedings: Debates automatically take place, the arguments for and against are examined in detail, and there is no definitive, hard-and-fast yes-or-no decision – as with the Brexit vote in Great Britain.