Constitutional Referendums in the Countries of the World

By Anckar, Dag | Journal of Politics and Law, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Constitutional Referendums in the Countries of the World


Anckar, Dag, Journal of Politics and Law


Abstract

This study of the countries of the world aims at understanding why 98 countries resort in constitutional amendments to mandatory or facultative referendums whereas 95 other countries do not. Two different explanatory approaches are tried out. The one departs from rationality assumptions and regards political institutions as instruments for problem-solving; the other departs from diffusion assumptions and regards institutions as outcomes from cultural and historical contexts. The main findings are consistent with the belief that the use of the constitutional referendum is rationality-driven. Given that amendment thresholds are much less constraining in plurality election systems than in proportional systems, a central hypothesis is that plurality elections promote the installation in amendment of methods for popular examination and approval. This is indeed the case: plurality elections spell referendums and especially so in the context of democratic politics.

Keywords: constitutions, amendment, diffusion, plurality elections, rational choice, referendum

1. Introduction

In his influential study some dozen years ago of Patterns of Democracy, Arend Lijphart observed that democracies when amending their constitutions "use a bewildering array of devices to give their constitutions different degrees of rigidity" (1999: 218). However, Lijphart hastened to moderate the implications of his observation, as he noted that the great variety of constitutional provisions may in fact be reduced to four basic types: approval by ordinary majorities, approval by two-thirds majorities, approval by less than a two-thirds majority but more than an ordinary majority (for instance, an ordinary majority plus a referendum), and approval by more than a two-thirds majority, such as a two-thirds majority plus approval by state legislatures (Lijphart, 1999: 219). This study of the countries of the world simplifies matters further, as it focuses on one division only, that, namely, between amendments that require the use in one form or another of a referendum device, and amendments that do not require this device. Adding to a growing literature on the use and consequences of the referendum in different parts of the world (e.g. Altman, 2011; Qvortrup, 2002), this study of the constitutional referendum institution aims at understanding why some countries resort in amendments to referendums, whereas other countries do not.

By way of introduction, one specific point of departure needs to be clarified. In one by now classic contribution to the field of political regime studies Maurice Duverger talks about "similarity of rules, diversity of games" (1980: 167), and he thus separates constitutional texts from political practices which may or may not correspond to the textual prescriptions. Explicitly, this study is about texts rather than practices. The aim is not to understand why a certain nation has executed a certain amount of constitutional referendums which is higher or lower than in other nations - such a research would be on an equality with the task of explaining by reference to the age of constitutions and similar circumstances why amendments and attendant referendums are more frequent in some systems than in others (Lutz, 1994). Rather, the study is about the constitutional prescriptions per se, and the research questions concern variations in the extent to which nations incorporate in their constitutions amendment methods that require the use of referendums. Or, to phrase this differently, the research is about the existence of methods and not about their actual use. The fact that there were up to the year 2000 only two referendums on constitutional issues in Armenia (Grotz & Rodrigues-McKey, 2001: 329) as against three in Kazakhstan (von Gumppenberg, 2001: 419) and four in Azerbaijan (Grotz & Motika, 2001: 357) does not constitute differences from the point of view of this study between the three countries. …

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