What’s the Verdict on Direct Democracy?: Lessons from Latin America


This is the first of two posts by HKS MPP’18 James Pagano exploring the promises and pitfalls of direct democracy—and how it might be used in the United States. In this post, James draws lessons from direct democracy efforts in Latin America that can be used to inform such initiatives in the United States.


By James Pagano

Across the world, popular referenda have been abused for a variety of nefarious, misguided, or half-baked purposes. These abuses have hamstrung legislators, damaged institutions, and at worst, facilitated the emergence of autocratic rulers. Popular referenda have also led to the toppling of authoritarian governments and forced elected leaders to reevaluate major policy decision. Despite a mixed record, and some sharply negative experiences, the tools of direct democracy remain enticing and can have a positive effect, when used correctly.


Direct Democracy Empowers the People

In its simplest form, direct democracy refers to citizens voting on issues that a parliament would typically decide (Tierney 2012). The appeal is simple: direct democracy provides a straightforward method for citizens to exercise popular sovereignty and is alluring for its emphasis on mass participation. Referenda and ballot initiatives necessarily allow citizens to weigh in on important policy decisions and in some cases allow them to address issues that might not have existed during elections for representatives.

Further, elections and ballot initiatives empower citizens to change public officials and to overturn legislative decisions, which some scholars argue can curb the power of elites and oligarchs (Direct Democracy, Britannica Academic). This potential to limit the influence of oligarchs contributes to the belief that direct democracy can have an equalizing effect on society by giving every voter a perfectly equal share of influence. Finally, in empowering and equalizing citizens, direct democracy also has the potential to boost participation.

2004 rally in Caracas during the recall effort. © CC Spaceriqui

Direct Democracy as a Partisan Tool

Despite some of these apparent benefits, direct democracy carries with it a series dangers. Most simply, direct democracy removes the minority protections afforded by a representative system. Referenda and ballot initiatives often suffer from issues of clarity. Political forces can exploit long, complex, or poorly worded questions to confuse voters. In referenda and initiatives that occur concurrently with other votes, high profile elections may overshadow an important policy decision and distract public debate. Finally, direct democratic exercises tend to see wide fluctuations in citizen participation—whether or not voting occurs independently from other elections is a major determinant of participation levels.

Probably the biggest criticism around direct democracy revolve around the quality of voter decision-making and the availability and sources of information. Information and its sources present a particularly important challenge for direct democracy because voters can no longer depend on their representative to make an informed decision and are instead themselves responsible for gathering information.

Political, partisan, or special interests behind a certain election can have a direct and negative impact on genuine deliberation and can lead to poor decision making by voters. Parties or self-interested organizations can become the sole providers of information for voters. In a vote where partisan stakes might be high, such as a recall or constitutional change, a party will attempt to convince or coerce its base, and may intentionally or inadvertently impede meaningful dialogue. Deep partisan involvement in a referendum can lead to straight party line votes that undermine or circumvent the prevailing legislative balance.


Lessons from Latin America

While different countries and regions have different lessons to offer, Latin America provides a particularly varied set of experiences on the use and abuse of referenda and direct democracy as a whole. Often, leaders have exploited the appeal of direct democracy, sometimes making questionable efforts to influence the outcomes in a specific direction. In other places, direct democracy has contributed to the passage of important reforms and facilitated the return of democracy. Understanding how leaders have manipulated direct democracy to influence outcomes can help policymakers, politicians, and citizens better understand when to resist calls for these votes and when to advocate for their use.


Venezuela: Referenda and elite capture

Perhaps no country in the world provides a better cautionary tale about the dangers of direct democracy than Venezuela. Venezuela demonstrates how political leaders can manipulate referenda to undermine democratic—albeit flawed—institutions. Popular referenda provided Hugo Chavez an effective tool to remove democratic safeguards, consolidate power, and undermine his political opponents. Throughout his presidency, Chavez played on the mass appeal of referenda while manipulating direct democratic exercises in order to bolster the power of his party and remove constitutional limits on the executive.

Chavez and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela(PSUV) routinely stacked the deck against the opposition to ensure favorable election results. Poorly worded questions and massive use of state resources tilted the outcomes in the PSUV’s favor. Unequal access to the media ensured that the government’s favored narrative received greater attention. The highly partisan nature of referenda in Venezuela also prevented meaningful dialogue on important questions, such as presidential term limits. Referenda in 2004, 2007 and 2009 all demonstrate different levels of manipulation and state interference.

The outcomes of referenda in Venezuela fail to support the theory that referenda curb elite influence. In Venezuela’s experience, referenda served as a tool to reinforce the PSUV’s control. Today in Venezuela, the opposition now controls the parliament and has sought to trigger a recall referendum against Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro; however, the Maduro government has constructed barriers to prevent the referendum from occurring. Clearly direct democracy has struggled in Venezuela and continues to struggle even after Chavez’ death.


Honduras: The polarizing potential of referenda

Honduras tells another cautionary tale about the politicization of direct democracy. The Honduran constitution only allows the legislator to call national referenda. In 2009, then President Manuel Zelaya sought to extend term-limits, but the legislator opposed such changes. In an effort to demonstrate public support for extended term-limits, Zelaya skirted constitutional limits and pushed forward with an unsanctioned plebiscite in direct violation of the law. His efforts, which the legislator and courts deemed unconstitutional, ultimately led to Zelaya’s removal from office in July of 2009, resulting in Latin America’s first coup d’état since 1991 (Ruhl, 2010, 93-107).

While Central America is not synonymous with strong and independent governmental institutions, and setting aside questions about the handling of Zelaya’s removal, this incident reinforced the importance of independent bodies overseeing all aspects of the process. In the case of Honduras, the appeal of mass participation misled Zelaya. He made a clear effort to circumvent the legislature when he realized that it wouldn’t support extended term-limits. The resulting crisis plunged Honduras into a period of profound uncertainty and political polarization.

In both Honduras and Venezuela, efforts by ambitious politicians to lead “top-down” direct democratic exercises harmed the overall quality of the country’s democracy.

Anti-Zelaya demonstrators in Tegucigalpa. © CC Chupu


Chile: When referenda work

Despite the experiences of Honduras and Venezuela, direct democracy has also witnessed successes in Latin America, perhaps most famously in Chile. The dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, after years of struggles and hard work by activists and political opponents, ended with a plebiscite and the now famous “No” vote in October of 1988.

Extrapolating lessons from the Chilean plebiscite presents obvious challenges. Typically, a dictator would fix the results of a vote that threatened his/her power. Out of a total of 254 instances of direct democratic exercises in autocratic regimes, only 3 have gone against the autocrat. Nonetheless, Chile’s experience demonstrates the potential benefits of the approach. Despite its authoritarian ruler at the time, Chile’s experience reinforces the idea that direct democracy can boost participation (87.9%), can hold elites to account, and serves as an effective counter-example to the top-down experiences of Venezuela.

Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from Chile’s experiences is simple yet deeply important: referenda are hard to predict and anyone unwilling to accept either outcome should be wary of holding one. Despite initial reluctance to release the results and concerns about Pinochet’s response, ultimately his government accepted the results.


Uruguay: A citizen driven approach

While less well-known than Chile, Uruguay has a long history of successfully using direct democracy. In fact, Uruguay held a referendum in 1980 that helped spur its return to democracy. More commonly, however, Uruguayans have voted on policy issues promoted by citizens instead of by political leaders.

These national citizen-led initiatives have covered a variety of topics, including amnesty for human rights violators, social security reform, and financing public education. While finding a definitive reason for success in Uruguay is challenging, the combination of an extremely powerful and independent election commission combined with citizen-focused nature of direct democracy there provide some insights into how to effectively structure such exercises.


Verdict: Direct Democracy Works… Sometimes

The appeal of direct democracy is strong, but evidence from Latin America suggests that while direct democracy can deliver real benefits, the costs of these exercises can be extremely high when implemented improperly, as directed by political leaders,  and solely out of political self-interest. In my next post, I’ll explore the circumstances under which tools for direct democracy may be appropriate in the U.S. context.



James Pagano is a first-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Research Assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance. He previously worked at Democracy International (DI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on a series of international programs aimed at improving the administration of elections and the quality of democratic governance around the world. At Harvard, James continues to study voting rights and electoral policy and also works as an Associate Editor for the Kennedy School Review.

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