Direct democracy against populism
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Nenad Stojanovic

Many theorists of democracy as well as political establishments across Europe are inimical towards referendums and citizens’ initiatives – often called “direct democracy” – because, among other things, they fear that such democratic instruments might favour populism and produce “bad” decisions. The 2016 Brexit referendum or the 2009 minaret ban in Switzerland are often cited as cases in point. Scepticism towards direct democracy is further nourished by the fact that many – albeit not all – populist parties call for introducing or reinforcing direct democracy in the respective countries. In 2014, for example, parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), the Swedish Democrats and Alternative for Germany (AfD) founded the “Alliance for Direct Democracy in Europe”. It is telling that an AfD politician declared that his goal was to promote the “Verschweizerung Deutschlands”, that is, the Helvetization of Germany. Indeed, Switzerland is the worlds’ champion in direct democracy: more than a third (648 out of 1,900) of all popular votes held in the world at the national level until mid-2020 took place in Switzerland. The record is even more impressive if we look at the available data on popular votes held at the substate level: 6,571 out of 8,000 took place in Switzerland.

Against that background, I claim that scepticism towards direct democracy rests on shaky ground. In fact, I will try to argue that a frequent use of direct democracy could structurally undermine populism.

The unified people?

An essential characteristic of populists is that they are not only anti-elitist but also anti-pluralist. They typically claim that “We – and only we – represent the true people”. The true people is thereby represented as a unitary, homogeneous community.

Now, it is relatively easy, I argue, to spread this fiction in countries where you never actually ask voters what they think about a particular political issue. Take, for example, the following typical quote Marine Le Pen, the leader of the (populist) party “Rassemblement national” in France: “The people no longer want immigrants”. Yet neither we nor the populists themselves know how French citizens would actually vote on this particular issue.

A key insight, here, is that a frequent and regular use of direct democracy structurally undermines populist ideology based on “the people’s will” and a unified, non-pluralist conception of the people. Of course, we know that this conception is a fiction but it is easier to unmask in a political system in which direct democracy is commonly used.

To see this, it is of crucial importance to underline that a frequent use of direct-democratic tools creates a context of unstable and ever-changing majorities and minorities. While mainstream theorists of democracy consider this fact as a significant disadvantage of direct democracy, it is crucial to my non-populist account as it increases the likelihood that members of minorities will be parts of political majorities on some issues. This insight also contributes to relativizing the charge that direct democracy can exacerbate the danger of majority tyranny and the twin problem of persistent minorities. I argue that the opposite is actually true: it is in purely representative democracies, especially if the representatives are elected according to majoritarian rules, that minority groups can be systematically outnumbered by the majority. In a system of frequently employed direct democracy – where people can vote on ordinary policy issues such as pension reform, healthcare, a new motorway tunnel or environmental regulations – the chances are high that a citizen belonging to a minority group will quite often be on the winning side, that is, in the majority. This effect of direct democracy confers legitimacy on the political system and allows it to counter the populist rhetoric of real or potential ethnonationalist leaders and movements.

Consider the fact that Swiss populists have often tried to launch citizens’ initiatives with the aim of limiting immigration. And yet, with one exception since 1970, all such proposals have failed because the majority of the people were against them. The exception is the citizens’ initiative “against mass immigration” that was narrowly (50.3 percent) accepted on 9 February 2014. Is this one popular vote a reason to reject direct democracy as an institution? Of course not. We should not judge democracy only on the basis of its outcomes. After all, hardly anyone has proposed to abolish free elections and representative democracy on the grounds that a considerable number of citizens of France, Italy or the United States have voted for populists such as Le Pen, Salvini and Trump.

The valve function of citizens’ initiatives

The instruments of direct democracy, especially the citizens’ initiative, fulfil several functions in the political system. One of them is the so-called “valve function”. Thanks to the citizens’ initiative, dissatisfied citizens can let off steam by protesting against the system.
Let us take the rise of Islamophobia as an example. In Germany it is at the heart of “Pegida”, a populist movement. Its name – “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West” – is a perfect summary of its cause. Despite several attempts, Pegida has never succeeded in setting foot in Switzerland. Violent attacks against asylum centres have also been virtually non-existent in Switzerland. One hypothesis is that direct democracy allows (potentially or actually) Islamophobic Swiss citizens to “let off steam” and express their frustration by voting “yes” or “no” on certain citizens’ initiatives, for example in the popular votes against the construction of minarets in 2009 and a burka ban in 2021. On these occasions a majority of voters – 57.5% and 51.2%, respectively – approved such populist proposals.

While we may regret the outcome of these popular votes, a far-right movement like Pegida seems far more frightening to me. According to a number of Swiss political scientists, it is well possible that protest phenomena such as Pegida  are not getting through in Switzerland because the critical debate is constantly being fuelled by direct democracy. In other words, people who have a direct say in decisions do not need to raise tensions and to provoke (potentially or actually) violent conflicts on the streets.

Moreover, even if it is likely that populist proposals such as the burka ban can gain a majority at the ballot box, we should ask if the situation is different in purely representative democracies. By June 2017, the parliaments of countries such as France, Belgium and Austria had already adopted a burka ban.

Against availability heuristics

I argued that direct democracy is not per se a door opener for populists. On the contrary, it can constantly undermine the populist logic – and its political success – by breaking the myth of a homogeneous people.

Let me conclude this article with a note on availability heuristics – a cognitive shortcut that can generate biased judgements due to the fact that people tend to evaluate events or proposals by considering the availability of instances of that event that can readily be brought to mind. So, if today somebody tries to advocate direct democracy, the typical critic will say, “Bad idea! Look at what happened with Brexit!”.
It seems evident to me that it is not rational to reject an institution on the basis of only one or two “bad” examples. Also, one could say that the Brexit referendum has nothing to do with the kind of direct democracy discussed in this article. Apart from many problems that accompanied it (especially the fact that it was not clear that a “no” vote would be irreversible and that the new deal with the EU would not be put to a popular vote, I should emphasize that Brexit was a typical example of a top-down referendum, where a Prime Minister (or a President) has the power to decide whether or not to hold a referendum. The alternative is the bottom-up version, as practiced in Switzerland, coming from citizens themselves. And even if citizens’ initiatives and referendums are launched by elites (parties, trade unions, associations etc.) they can hardly bypass the hard grassroots-democratic work consisting in collecting signatures and convincing citizens to support their cause. Hence, probably the most difficult task for advocates of direct democracy is to convince their critics to abandon availability heuristics and to evaluate both the merits and the shortcomings of direct democracy in a less passionate and a more objective way.


Nenad Stojanović is a SNSF Professor of Political Science at the University of Geneva. His main research topic is democracy, with a focus on political institutions for multicultural societies. In recent years he has conducted numerous “deliberative mini-publics” (i.e. citizens’ assemblies selected via lot) in several Swiss cantons and cities (www.demoscan.ch). He is the author of Dialogue sur les quotas: Penser la représentation dans une démocratie multiculturelle (Presses de Sciences Po 2013; Il Mulino 2014) and Multilingual Democracy: Switzerland and Beyond (ECPR Press 2021).