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The Ever-Contested Referendum? How Politicians Cope with the Consequences of Referendums

Elites
Institutions
Referendums and Initiatives
Elwin Reimink
Université Libre de Bruxelles
Elwin Reimink
Université Libre de Bruxelles
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Abstract

Referendum outcomes often catch elected politicians by surprise. Famous examples are the referendums on EU treaties in several European countries, the Italian referendum on the abolishment of proportional representation, and the Québec referendums on independence. These referendums do have one other aspect in common: their consequences were fiercely contested in their respective aftermaths. While the direct democratic ideal stresses the idea of a popular judgment which transcends partisan quarrels, the exercise of direct democracy bears the risk of becoming just another stake in partisan ‘politics as usual’. For example, politicians can accept the popular ‘verdict’, but have equally the choice to discredit the process, to use the referendum result to political ends, or to circumvent the result and push back. Hitherto, referendum studies have mostly focused on the period before the referendum, and on the referendum itself. Yet, the aftermath of a referendum might very well determine its legacy, and might prove an indicator off the general functioning of direct democracy within the democratic framework of a country or region. In order to shine a bit of light on this political ‘reception’ of referendum results, we will gather information on several referendums in European countries on institutional reform. We will zoom in on two questions: first, we will consider how politicians react to referendum results, and what implications this brings to further policy evolution. Second, we will consider why politicians react to referendum results in the way they do, by tracing the referendum processes from the moment that they were initiated until the day that the proposals were voted upon, studying initial support for the referendum and its proposal, the character of the referendum campaign and the referendum outcome, and the role of elected politicians throughout these steps.