The instruments of direct democracy

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Citizens Initiative

Citizens Initiative

Photo: © European Union 2012

Granting citizens a direct say in political decisions is often part of the political system in a country.

It is crucial to make a clear distinction between the different mechanisms and procedures of direct democracy. The terminology used by the jurisdictions can vary to describe the various direct democracy instruments. Therefore it is essential to agree on common definitions for the same institutions and processes.

International IDEA’s handbook on Direct Democracy presents a full examination of the existing instruments and considerations involving the design or usage of direct democracy, namely:


A referendum is a procedure which gives the electorate a direct vote on a specific political, constitutional or legislative issue. A referendum takes place when a governing body or similar authority decides to call for a vote on a particular issue, or when such a vote is required by law. In some cases, procedures also exist which allow citizens or a minority in a legislature to demand a referendum on an issue. The result of a referendum may be legally binding, as determined by the law or constitution under which it is called, or it may be used by the authorities for advisory purposes only.

Citizens’ Initiatives/popular initiatives/citizen-initiated referendums

Citizens´ initiatives allow the electorate to vote on a political, constitutional or legislative measure proposed by a number of citizens and not by a government, legislature measure proposed by a number of citizens and not by a government, legislature or other political authority. To bring an issue to a vote, the proponents of the measure must gather enough signatures in support of it as the law requires. Citizens ‘initiatives may deal with new proposals, existing laws, or constitutional measures, depending upon the jurisdiction. Depending in the authorizing law, the result of an initiative vote maybe legally binding or advisory.

Agenda Initiatives

Agenda initiatives are procedures by which citizens can place a particular issue on the agenda of a parliament or legislative assembly. As with citizens’ initiatives, a minimum number of signatures is generally specified by law in order for the initiative to be brought forward to the legislature. Unlike the procedure for citizens ‘initiatives, no popular vote takes place when an agenda initiative is brought forward.


Recall procedures allow the electorate to vote in whether to end the term of office if an elected representative or official if enough signatures in support of a recall vote are collected. Although the process of recall is often similar to that of citizens´ initiatives, recall deals only with the question of the removal if a person from public office, and the outcome is therefore always binding.

Wider mechanisms of participatory democracy such as participatory budgeting are sometimes also considered instruments of direct democracy.

About the Author

FORMER Senior Programme Manager
Annette Monika Fath-Lihic

Annette Fath-Lihic is an expert in electoral issues, policy work in post-crisis areas, sustainable development governance and international humanitarian law, human rights and international  relations.