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

Lars Brummel

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.