No. 44




Referendum: Best Tool of Direct Democracy or Instrument of Polarisation?

08 December 2021


RiTo No. 44, 2021

  • Kristiina Vain

    Kristiina Vain

    Master’s Student, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu

Referendum can be viewed as one of the key instruments of contemporary direct democracy, which allows people to directly apply their legislative power.

Yet, referendum can also create a clear divide between the winners and the losers, and this in turn may lead to the increased absolute power of the majority and the marginalisation of the minority. One factor in opening this winner-loser gap and polarising the opposite sides can be the manner of reporting on the referendum in the media. The article studies four referendums in Europe between 2010 and 2020: the 2012 constitutional referendum in Latvia, the 2020 referendum on limiting immigration in Switzerland, the 2018 abortion legalisation referendum in Ireland, and the 2019 Intelligence and Security Services Act referendum in the Netherlands, along with an analysis of how the losing side was reflected in the largest digital media publication in each country.

A comparison of the four referendums shows that the intensity of their media coverage mainly depends on the topic of the referendum. This is the most apparent in the 2012 constitutional referendum in Latvia on the status of Russian as a possible official language. As this is a very polarising topic in the society, the Latvian case shows the most media coverage accorded to the losing side. The opinions of the losing side have been covered less in the articles on the Irish, Swiss, and Dutch referendums. Although the abortion legalisation referendum is contentious, only two opinions from representatives of the losing side were reported. The comparison of the media coverage of referendums highlighted Switzerland as an exceptional case because the local media published only one article on the 2020 referendum on limiting immigration, simply describing the result of the referendum without sharing the emotions of neither the winners nor the losers. All four cases clearly demonstrate that the media reports mainly on the opinions of the elite among the losers: political elite in the cases of Switzerland, Latvia, and the Netherlands, and religious elite in the case of Ireland.

The article reveals that the media coverage of the losing side depends on a number of factors, such as the topic of the referendum or, to some extent, how often the country makes use of referendums. Media publications often report on the losing side less than on the winning side. Regardless, the media plays an important role in shaping the winner-loser gap in the society because the emotions of the losers are often reflected in the media coverage on referendums that had caused massive public discussions.