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Law, Economics, Politics and Governance Law, Economics, Politics and Governance

Referendums, for Populists Only? Why Populist Parties Favour Referendums and How Other Parties Respond.

Lars Brummel
Abstract:

Populists are generally known as supporters of referendums and several populist parties have promoted direct democracy in recent years. To deepen our understanding of the populism-referendum link, this study analyses how populist parties in Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands defend a greater use of referendums and how their non-populist counterparts respond to this populist call for referendums. An analysis of election manifestos shows that populist parties justify their referendum support by characterizing referendums as a purely democratic ideal, by presenting it as an alternative to decision-making by ‘bad’ political elites or by promoting referendums as a tool to realise their preferred policy decisions. Populist referendum support is thus related to people-centrism and ant-elitism, as elements of a populist ideology, but also to strategic considerations. These lines of argument are used by both populists on the right and the left, but anti-elitism is particularly prominent in manifestos of radical right-wing populist parties. Populists are not the only supporters of direct democracy – however, there is no evidence that non-populist parties did become more favourable towards referendums to adapt to the populist call for a greater referendum use.