Steps in the process

1. General definitions

Referendum(s): a popular vote formally bearing on an issue or policy.

A referendum differs from an election, which is about choosing representatives, or a recall, by which citizens can initiate a vote to remove from office an elected representative.

Recall: a vote initiated by citizens to remove from office an elected representative.NB: some typologies also call “recall”, or “mixed recall”, such a vote when it is at the initiative of authorities (typically the parliament ). We call it a referendum. An example in the EU of such a referendum was the 2007 referendum in Romania on the impeachment of the President of the Republic, which was repeated in 2012.

Although the distinction between issue-voting and person-electing (or revoking) is sometimes blurred, as when the issue is a person’s exercise of power, we do not use another word, such as “plebiscite”, to qualify these power-related votes.

Plebiscite: some referendums literally ask the people whether they trust or not a person (e.g. the referendum initiated by Boris Eltsine in 1993). Others are straightforwardly about the permanence or access in power of a person (e.g the just quoted 2007 and 2012 referendums in Romania on the President staying in office or the 1995 referendum in Kazakhstan on the same issue). But the most frequent case is that of referendums which are turned in practice into votes of confidence even though they formally deal with a policy. These different types of power-related referendums are often referred as “plebiscites”, although etymologically the word “plebiscite” only means “a decree of the plebs” (historically it designated the decisions of the assemblies of the plebs in Rome although it became with Caesar a device for consolidation of personal power). We discard here the use of this word since the qualification as “plebiscite” is problematic regarding referendums which turn in practice to personalization, sometimes regardless of the will of their initiator, and can thus be decided only a posteriori on empirical grounds .NB: “Plebiscite” was also for long the current name for popular consultations initiated by authorities, mostly on territorial or sovereignty issues. Actually some contemporary typologies still designate “top-down” referendums (i.e. initiated by authorities) as “plebiscites”. A variety of other uses can be found in national traditions such as in Australia, where “plebiscite” is the current name for popular votes on ordinary legislation by contrast with “referendums”, which are on constitutional revisions. The polysemy character of the word is another reason why it proves difficult to use it to qualify power-related or personalized referendums.


The term “referendum” is used here generically, including all types of popular votes that formally refer to a problem or policy, irrespective of the many variables introducing differences between referendums, particularly in relation to their initiative. Thus, while some researchers or organizations prefer to speak of “referendums and initiatives”, we include “initiatives”, ie consultations initiated by popular minorities, in the general term “referendum”.

Beyond its central feature of being a policy-vote, the referendum is indeed a multi-faceted process.

2. Typology of referendums

The following typology articulates the main types of referendums with regard to (1) the required or optional nature of the process (2) its initiator and (3) whether or not the initiator can propose a policy (only for minority initiated referendums). The seven types can be ranged on an axis measuring the extent of legislative power conferred on the people.

The range of issues open to the referendum has not been taken into consideration. But minority initiated referendums generally apply to a large field of legislation. The legal impact of the vote was also not been taken into account, partly because in practice it does not prove to be such a crucial variable (see Morel, 2018). Moreover, minority initiated and mandatory referendums are most of the time legally binding, while government initiated referendums are more often advisory. Thus, the ranking of the seven types in the following typology would not be considerably changed by introducing these two variables.

Citizen agenda initiative: the citizen agenda initiative¬† (IDEA’s terminology) is not included in this typology since it does not empower the people to initiate a referendum, like the popular initiative, but only to set an issue on the Parliament’s agenda (or the European Commission in the case of the European citizen’s initiative), be it a policy or the demand for a referendum on a policy. Recent examples are the agenda initiatives for a referendum on the Euro addressed to the Austrian and Finnish Parliaments in 2016. Sometimes the Parliament may decide (or agree) to organize a referendum, or be obliged to do so in certain circumstances. Thus in France, under article 11 of the Constitution the joint petition by a parliamentary and a popular minority leads to a referendum if the proposal has not been debated in Parliament within a certain lapse of time.


Typology table


Label1 Minority-initiated referendum (Bottom-up referendum) Mandatory referendum Government-initiated referendum (Top-down referendum)
Popular minority Institutional minority
(parliamentary minority, local authority, etc.)
(alone or with Executive)
(Monarch and/or President, Prime minister)
Label2 Propositive referendum Rejective or abrogative referendum Propositive referendum Rejective or abrogative referendum
Type of referendum 1
Popular initiative
Popular veto
Minority referendum
Minority veto referendum
Mandatory referendum
Legislature-initiated referendum