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One argument that is used against decision-making by popular referendum is that they tend to lead to populist, perhaps even impossible decisions. It seems that referendums can lead to decisions that corresponding legislations would not take. The Swiss minaret ban from 2009 is a(n) (in)famous example. In a Swiss referendum in 1989, more than 35% voted in favour of abolishing the army; although not near a majority, it was accepted in two cantons, and in parliament this idea would not have gotten such a high percentage.

Has there been any systematic study to test whether referendums lead to significantly different decisions than when all decisions are taken by elected parliamentarians? The term populist is probably quite subjective, but would such decisions be likely to be considered populist?

  • Why is this not a real question? – gerrit Dec 7 '12 at 16:19
  • I like the question's idea, but it may likely be impossible to answer objectively, since "would have been" can not be properly tested. I doubt there were cases when there was simultaneous vote via referendum AND parlament on the same question? (I don't know if that was the reason for the VTC, but it does seem like an issue with the question that could have caused it) – user4012 Dec 7 '12 at 17:12
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I've found Franklin, M. N., Van der Eijk, C., & Marsh, M. (1995). Referendum outcomes and trust in government: Public support for Europe in the wake of Maastricht to show some significant insights on the outcome of referenda and what they represent. A key phrase from the abstract is the following:

In this paper we dispute this assumption, presenting evidence that shows referenda in Parliamentary systems with disciplined party governments to be subject to what we call a ‘lockstep’ phenomenon in which referendum outcomes become tied to the popularity of the government in power, even if the ostensible subject of the referendum has little to do with the reasons for government popularity (or lack of popularity).

Based on this outcome, one could question the viability of referenda as a serious tool to aid decision-making.

I think it would be quite difficult to compare the results of a referendum to decisions made solely by parliament, at least when using a scientific approach. The fact that a referendum is conducted and parliament is informed of the outcome casts a bias over the decision-making process, making scientific comparision inheritly difficult.

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  • The primary power of a referendum voted on by democratic method (popular vote) is to usurp the protection of the minority typically provided by parliamentary processes. – Kevin Peno Dec 7 '12 at 21:53

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