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Political Culture and Active Citizenship Symposium

What drives citizen participation?


For seven years, Dr Klaus Hofmann has been researching legal instruments of direct democracy worldwide for the Navigator for Direct Democracy. Throughout his research, he found that many countries actually have mechanisms in place that allow citizens to participate in decision-making. However, the way in which these instruments were used differed immensely from one country to another. In order to examine how these differences arise, he invited scholars from seven countries to explain what the obstacles and incentives are for citizens to participate in policy-making in their countries. Earlier this month, they presented their cases at the Political Culture and Active Citizenship symposium at the Bergische Universität Wuppertal.

By Caroline Vernaillen

The Navigator for Direct Democracy was set up in 2011 with the aim of mapping the direct democratic procedures and practices available to citizens all over the world. But in researching these legal instruments, Dr Klaus Hofmann started to wonder why these tools that are in essence so similar, were being used in such different ways. The answer, he theorized, must partly be found within the conditions that arise from the use of direct democratic instruments. Sometimes the reasons can be found in high quorums and access requirements, but also the political culture of different societies must be taken into account. “In 2016, we did a world fact check and this gave us reason to believe that the hurdles which are set up within legal designs for direct democracy, such as turnout quorums, can be part of the reason why these instruments are in certain cases rarely or seldom used by the citizens,” he explains.

To gain a better understanding of the instruments available to citizens and how these interact with the political culture of different countries “we invited participants from all over the world, from countries that have the possibility for citizens to initiate law: Peru, Uruguay, Ecuador, Slovakia, Hungary and Germany. We also invited someone from what can be considered the example when it comes to direct democracy: Switzerland,” he says.

In recent years, political science has shifted its attention to a so-called “crisis of representation”. Research suggest that citizens approve of the idea of representative democracy, but generally judge the performance of their representatives sceptically. In this debate, direct democracy is often cited as a solution, but the implementation of direct democratic instruments differs from one country to the next and does not always align with best practices. For one, we can see that there is a rise in populist movements who legitimize themselves through plebiscites, which are organised top-down and are very vulnerable to manipulation.

Professor Zoltán Tibor Pallinger from the Andrassy University in Hungary explains that astonishingly, it is not the opposition or the citizens who make the most active use of direct democracy, but the government, who has a majority in the national assembly and is thus already completely free to sail its own course. Professor Pallinger explains how the current government has “colonised” democracy and direct democracy to promote its own agenda. Ranging from gargantuan “Information campaigns” to plebiscites aimed at influencing popular opinion, such as the infamous, but failed, refugee referendum last year.

Similarly, we can see that in Ecuador, plebiscites have been used to legitimize the policy of the government. Professor Andrés Mejía Acosta of King’s College London explains how former President Correa used plebiscites to strengthen his own position, by organising them at times when polls showed he already had high support from the population. When this support dried up, so did his interest in inquiring for the opinion of the citizens. This of course caused people to show their discontent in other ways, by massively taking to the streets.

Where bottom-up instruments, such as citizen initiatives and citizen-initiated referendums, are in place their usefulness to citizens is often restricted by hurdles. Often a very high number of signatures is necessary to initiate a referendum and a high turnout quorum is required for the referendum to be valid. This sometimes has peculiar side-effects.

Peter Spáč from the Masaryk University in Czech Republic, who presented the Slovakian case explains for example how high hurdles have turned the referendum into a tool for political parties. To initiate a referendum, “it is possible to gather 350.000 signatures, which represents about 8% of the people, which is quite high. It is hard for normal citizens to collect this amount; mainly political parties are able to do that,” he explains.

Moreover, the turnout quorum in Slovakia is set at 50% of the population. Only one referendum has ever managed to reach this quorum (on EU membership) and this was only because of massive mobilisation by the parties. In all other cases, the turnout quorum is so prohibitive that the organisers can logically expect their referendum will not be valid. This has led to cases of faux referendums, where the question on the ballot matters much less than who is the organiser.

Professor Rafael Piñeiro, of the Catholic University of Uruguay, explains that Uruguay has very high hurdles as well. To initiate a referendum on a law, citizens need to collect signatures of 25% of the electorate, to propose an ammendment to the constitution they need signatures of 10% of the citizens. However, unlike in Slovakia this has not led to a decreased use. “During the last 30 years, these different mechanisms were used a lot. I think it is because we have a lot of organisations who process their agenda through these mechanisms. Often against the government, because they feel it doesn’t represent them adequately,” professor Piñeiro explains.

When asked if this leads to a monopoly on citizens’ initiatives by powerful organisations such as parties and trade unions, he answers: “In part yes, but parties and trade unions are willing to be carriers of the demands of small groups. They are quite receptive to other civil society organisations that do not themselves have the power to carry out a referendum. There is a need to build alliances.”

In Peru, the bottom-up instrument that is used the most is that of recalls, says professor Arturo Maldonado of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru. At the local level, Peru sees hundreds of recalls every year, but “they aren’t used to activate political participation, but as an instrument for political rivals,” he states. “Recalls might be understood as second rounds of elections. Political rivals who lost elections can collect signatures and ask for new elections. So, it is not an instrument of participation, but of local elites to compete against each other.”

On the last day of the symposium, Professor Uwe Serdült of the Centre for Democracy Studies of Aarau, presented the Swiss case, which is often cited as the most complete and well-functioning form of direct democracy. In Switzerland, he showed, “direct democratic instruments have developed over a long time,” “First of all, it was about the ability to adopt and change constitutions. Then more instruments were added so that you can challenge legislation in parliament: you can collect signatures to challenge a parliamentary decision or you can launch a citizens’ initiative to introduce a change to the constitution. On the local level there are many instruments allowing you to sanction financial decisions.”

One argument that is often cited against the Swiss example, is low turnout. Official numbers show that only about 50% of the population take part in any given referendum, which take place four times a year. This however is a misunderstanding of the statistics, professor Serdült claims. Swiss citizens tend to select when to participate based on the issues on the ballot. When we look at the participation over a period of four years, in order to compare to election turnout in other countries, we see that it is much closer to 80%. Moreover, Swiss citizens show a much higher level of approval of their country’s policy, as they are the ones deciding after all.

As these different cases show, the legal framework and the prevailing practice are big factors in motivating citizens to participate in policy-making or not, even when the instruments are available. It shows that legal instruments need to be developed with care and independent oversight to the correct use of them is imperative. When asked what to take away from this symposium, Dr Hofmann states “What I know is that we have to talk, we have to stay in touch and this way we can learn from each other and we can make things better for the people and for democracy.”


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