Advantages and disadvantages of the referendum instrument

Several arguments are advanced in support of and in opposition to referendums.

Supporters of the use of referendums argue that, in the context of increasing voter apathy and disenchantment with traditional forms of democracy, direct democracy can help to re-engage voters with politics and democracy. Another argument advanced in favour of referendums is that they can be used to resolve political problems, particularly for incumbent governments; where a governing party is divided over an issue, for example, holding a referendum can help reach a solution on the issue without splitting the party (one example of this is the 1975 UK referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EC, an issue over which the ruling Labour government was deeply divided). There is also an argument that governments need a specific popular mandate for any transcendental changes that were not part of the original platform on which they campaigned. This is particularly the case when an amendment to a constitution which itself was approved by referendum is under consideration.

There are also a number of arguments made against the use of referendums. One is that it weakens representative democracy by undermining the role and importance of elected representatives. Further to this point, referendums are sometimes seen as a means available to elected representatives to avoid having to take an unpopular position on a controversial issue. Another is that voters do not always have the capacity or information to make informed decisions about the issue at stake, and instead may make ill-informed decisions based on partial knowledge or on the basis of unrelated factors such as the state of the economy. This trend may be exacerbated in the case of referendums on complex issues such as constitutional change or international treaties, with which voters are likely to be unfamiliar.

Opponents of referendums also argue that, if the executive has the power to determine when referendums are held, they can be used as a political tool to suit the needs of the governing party rather than the interests of democracy. They also claim that, since in many countries turnout at referendums is lower than at national elections, the argument that referendums increase the legitimacy of political decisions does not stand up. However, experts in Switzerland (where a number of direct democracy votes take place each year) believe that, although turnout at referendums is around 45%, more than 45% of electors participate in direct democracy, since different voters participate in the different votes that interest them.

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