No. 44




Democratic Innovation: Local Referendum

08 December 2021


RiTo No. 44, 2021

  • Alar Kilp

    Alar Kilp

    Lecturer in comparative politics, University of Tartu

In Estonia, innovation of democratic procedures has so far focused on deliberative institutions (e.g. people’s assembly, opinion festival) and digital means (online voting, VOLIS as a System for Local Democracy Procedures).

Local referendum, which has a potential to strengthen representative democracy and reduce manipulations with people’s will, has so far not been used. Relying on comparative examples of democracies which use referendums at local level of government, the article discusses several possibilities and limits of local referendums: only issues which are within the jurisdiction of local government can be put to referendum; referendums enable to raise questions which are not a priority for the parties represented in local councils; local politics focuses on community, not on demos like politics at the national level.

Referendums should be preferred to opinion polls or public surveys, because referendums need to be substantially and procedurally in accordance with the guidelines and codes of good practice on referendums of the Venice Commission. Consequently, referendums are less easy to be manipulated than other forms of collecting public opinion. Risks and challenges of conducting referendums are largely similar to the ones of other democratic instruments. Resources (of participants) may influence the outcomes of both referendums and elections. Political and social actors can make strategic use of any instrument of democracy, including referendums. Referendums by definition involve a majority decision (or opinion in the case of non-binding referendums) on a single issue. The majority principle does not contradict democracy, because it is an indispensable means of political decision-making. Issues decided on local referendums are either voluntarily chosen or mandatory (laws determine the issues which cannot be decided without referendums). In democracies, most of voluntarily chosen issues that are being put to referendum concern developmental projects and NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome. Typically, the issue is about the location of a wind farm, military base, prison, mine or airport. Reluctance of local people (NIMBY) to support such projects is often motivated by concerns about nature and living environment. Decisions over minority rights are not within the jurisdiction of local government and therefore cannot be put to referendum. Accordingly, local referendums are not an instrument of (right-wing) populists. Both in Estonia and in Europe, main actors advocating for local referendums have been the Greens, not populist nationalists.

Scandinavian countries, which use nonbinding local referendums, offer an example that Estonia could follow. Non-binding referendum is a ’soft form’ of direct democracy, which does not allow people to decide an issue. The lesson we can learn from the Scandinavian countries is that some local decisions are better with referendums that are non-binding than without any referendums at all.