Fakultäten » Philosophische Fakultät » Philosophisches Seminar » Arbeits- und Forschungsstelle für Ethik » Prof. Dr. Francis Cheneval » el-Wakil

Completed research project

Title / Titel Reconsidering Direct Democracy: The Value of the Facultative Referendum in Democratic Systems
PDF Abstract (PDF, 14 KB)
Summary / Zusammenfassung As the use of plebiscites for making binding political decisions increases around the world, the question of the democratic legitimacy of direct democratic institutions remains largely unanswered. Empirical political scientists have gathered extensive factual knowledge about the functioning of direct democratic mechanisms in various countries. Yet the implications of their empirical studies for the democratic value of direct democratic procedures are highly ambiguous: While some researchers conclude that they promote political inclusion and control of the representatives, others denounce their negative effects, such as producing forms of deadlock, or serving only the interests of powerful groups. The difficulty in assessing the democratic value of direct democratic institutions can be to a large extent explained by the absence of a coherent normative theory of semi-direct democracy in contemporary democratic theory. Political theorists have actually widely rejected these institutions a priori, thus failing to construct a unified framework for clarifying and assessing their democratic contribution.
In this doctoral project, I aim to contribute to remedying this unsatisfactory situation. I offer the first comprehensive normative defense of semi-direct democratic systems, including, in addition to representative institutions, the bottom-up direct democratic procedure of the facultative referendum. In Switzerland, this procedure enables citizens, once a fixed number of signatures has been gathered in a given amount of time, to oppose almost any law adopted by the parliament. When a facultative referendum is launched, the authorities must organize a popular vote through which the majority of citizens decides to adopt or to reject the contested law.
The main claim of this doctoral thesis is that the facultative referendum institution has the potential to enhance the quality of democratic systems. In the first part of the thesis, I will discuss this institution and the semi-direct democratic system containing it by answering theoretical and empirical objections to direct democratic institutions commonly found in the literature. In the second part, I will present a theory of the semi-direct democracy including the facultative referendum institution and highlight its strengths compared to pure representative democracies. Whether, for instance, it enhances communication between the elected representatives and the citizens, or promotes forms of selective trust by an active citizenry in the political institutions. I will also discuss the regulative ideals that should guide such a democratic system and propose some indications as to the conditions in which the semi-direct system can best realize its potential. Before concluding, I will focus in a final chapter on the existing Swiss democratic system and suggest some changes that could enhance the impact of the FR over this semi-direct democracy.
Even though it focuses on one specific direct democratic institution, this research could open the way to further reconsideration of modern direct democratic tools as valuable institutions for deliberative democracy. At any rate, it informs the timely “fundamental choice […] between a pure representative system and a similar system combined with referendums” (Hug 2008, 252; see also Cheneval 2015, 169).
Keywords / Suchbegriffe Democratic theory, direct democracy, participation, Swiss politics, republicanism, deliberative democracy, normative political theory, citizenship, political rights
Project leadership and contacts /
Projektleitung und Kontakte
Alice el-Wakil (Project Leader)
Funding source(s) /
Unterstützt durch
Other Public Sources (e.g. Federal or Cantonal Agencies)
Doctoral Scholarship from the Centre for Democracy Studies in Aarau (ZDA)
Duration of Project / Projektdauer Apr 2014 to Apr 2018