Performance of MDD

The performance of democracy depends on two factors: the quality of the legal design of MDD and the extent to which the conditions for democracy are met. Legal design is crucial for the use that can be made of popular vote procedures. The higher the hurdles are set, the more difficult it is to use these instruments. Groups with fewer resources are able to use MDD only if the hurdles are low (like in Switzerland), but not if they are high (like in Uruguay). Clear and simple rules are necessary and the rules must be enforced (see Legal Design).

Of course, the effects of popular vote procedures also depend on whether they are used regularly (as is normally the case with MDD) or only sporadically (as is the case with plebiscites). The following distinction is significant: while the rights of initiative and referendum, regardless of the frequency of their use, exert a continuous influence on the parliamentarian decision-making process by their mere existence, the same is not true for plebiscites which can be triggered only by a representative authority, but not by citizens.

Democracy can only function to the extent that the basic conditions of democracy are met. These conditions include a state operating under the rule of law, protection of the constitution and fundamental rights, people and organisations which have internalised the democratic principle, a functioning media and public space, education for democracy, research and development, and an institutionalized self-criticism of democracy. Of course major problems are caused by the influence money has over politics: “when money talks, democracy is silenced”. Citizen participation also requires allocation of time and support, and this is a much neglected dimension of democracy which therefore deserves to be accentuated. The more developed and mature a democracy, the better the conditions for free and fair procedures; and the better the legal design of the instruments, the better MDD can accomplish its functions and effects. Table 1 summarizes the functions and effects of well-designed MDD in the context of a mature democracy. Table 2 contains the overall effects of MDD compared to those of plebiscites.

* Under conditions of a mature democracy and provided the instruments are well designed (so that weaker groups can use them), complementary, regularly used and integrated with representative-electoral democracy.

Considering the functions and effects of direct democracy we have to bear in mind the process character of MDD. Each procedure taken separately is a process with different aspects that are all necessary (genesis, public debate, decision-making, implementation), a process that takes time and cannot be reduced to the moment of decision-making at the ballot box. Popular vote procedures do not occur in isolation; they may be interlinked and form a process of a more complex order. Past experiences with concrete initiative and referendum processes have an influence on what happens later. For example, if illegitimate popular initiatives are tolerated, this will have effects on future initiatives (among others). Therefore, the effects of MDD should not be attributed to single procedures alone; they should also be seen in the context of the accumulated experiences with past events that together inform and influence future MDD processes.

According to Vatter (2009), the introduction of initiatives and referendums and their regular use create institutional pressures towards more power sharing in the executive. Switzerland provides an example of this structure-building function of MDD. In order to best control the risks of referendums (introduced in 1874 at the federal level), the political establishment developed power sharing strategies of integrating strong oppositional political forces into government. As a consequence, the former majoritarian democracy was gradually transformed into a consensus democracy with broadly supported multi-party government coalitions.

In Swiss consensus democracy MDD also functions as a compensatory power sharing instrument for weakly integrated minorities which are nevertheless capable of self-organization and enduring conflict. According to Vatter (2002), initiatives and referendums are of particular importance as rapidly employable conflict resolution instruments. Vatter shows that the more incomplete the consensus democracy is, the more often MDD is made use of by the citizens. By comparing the different cantonal direct democracy regimes he also shows that lack of local autonomy and narrow government coalitions are associated with a more frequent use of MDD.


Vatter, Adrian. 2002. Kantonale Demokratien im Vergleich. Opladen: Leske + Budrich.

Vatter, Adrian. 2009. Lijphart expanded: three dimensions of democracy in advanced OECD countries? In: European Political Science Review 1(1), (March 2009), pp. 125-154.

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