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Direct Democracy Glossary

The following glossary lists the most common terms with definitions taken from the Navigator to Direct Democracy.

The typology of the Navigator to Direct Democracy distinguishes between three types of popular vote procedure: initiative, referendum and plebiscite. It contains 10 different forms of procedure and makes it possible to compare the repertoires and instruments of direct democracy of different countries.

The Navigator to Direct Democracy was created as a global information and collaboration platform based on the general typology of modern direct democracy and it features direct democracy procedures and practices worldwide.

Popular or citizens’ initiative

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a given number of citizens to put their own proposal on the political agenda. The procedure is initiated by a prescribed number of eligible voters. The sponsors of a popular initiative can force a popular vote on their proposal (assuming that their initiative is formally adopted). The initiative procedure may include a withdrawal clause, which gives the sponsors the possibility to withdraw their initiative, for example in the event that the legislature has taken action to fulfil the demands of the initiative or part of them. 

Agenda (setting) initiative

An agenda setting initiative is the right of a specified number of eligible voters to propose to a competent authority the adoption of a law or measure; the addressee of this proposal and request is not the whole electorate but a representative authority. In contrast to the popular initiative, it is this authority which decides what is going to happen to the proposal.
An agenda initiative can be institutionalized in a variety of ways: for example as an agenda initiative without popular vote, as an agenda initiative combined with the possibility of a consultative or binding plebiscite or as a popular motion (“Volksmotion”). The popular motion can be the equivalent of a parliamentary motion; if adopted, it can also be treated like a popular initiative (this is the case in the canton of Obwalden, Switzerland). 


Within the framework of a popular initiative process a representative authority (normally parliament) has the right to formulate a counter-proposal to the initiative proposal. Both proposals are then decided on at the same time by a popular vote. If both proposals are accepted, the decision on whether the initiative proposal or the authority’s counter-proposal should be implemented can be made by means of a special deciding question. 

Popular or citizen-initiated referendum

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a specified number of citizens to initiate a referendum and let the whole electorate decide whether, for example, a particular law should be enacted or repealed.
This procedure acts as a corrective to parliamentary decision-making in representative democracies and as a check on parliament and the government. 

Obligatory referendum

This popular vote procedure is triggered automatically by law (usually the constitution) which requires that certain issues must be put before the voters for approval or rejection. A conditional obligatory referendum means, that a specified issue must be put to the ballot only under certain conditions. Unconditional referendums are without loophole. 


A popular vote procedure whose use lies exclusively within the control of an authority. In this form the author of the ballot proposal and the initiator of the procedure are the same (for example parliament or president). 


A popular vote procedure whose use lies exclusively within the control of the authorities. In this form the author of the ballot proposal and the initiator of the procedure are NOT the same. For example, a government or a president may oppose (veto) a decision of parliament and refer it to a popular vote; hence the name veto plebiscite. 

Authorities’ minority veto-plebiscite

A popular vote procedure characterized by the right of a minority of a representative authority to put a decision made by the majority in the same authority before the voters for approval or rejection. This procedure enables a minority of a representative authority to step on the brakes and give the final say to the voters. 

Authorities' minority plebiscite

A popular vote procedure and a political right that allows a specified minority of an authority (e.g. one third of the parliament) to put its own proposal on the political agenda and let the people decide on it by a popular vote.

(Source: The navigator to Direct Democracy http://direct-democracy-navigator.org/)


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