Theories of referendum and the analysis of agenda-setting
The referendum is often considered to be a form of direct democracy, and is often justified in terms of results representing the will of the majority. This view is disputable for three reasons: i) based on the results of social choice theory, it may be argued that the outcomes of referendums may be arbitrary and open to various interpretations; ii) it is debatable what the role of popular majorities should be in decision-making; many theorists of democracy think that unchecked majority rule should not prevail; iii) because of the differences in agenda-setting, there is considerable functional variation between referendums. Different forms of referendums have also been justified by different theoretical arguments: popular initiatives have been promoted by radical democrats, whereas referendums used as a check on legislature have been supported by 'Madisonian' democrats. In the analysis of agenda-setting it is important to distinguish i) how and by whom the referendum is initiated and ii) on what kind of issues they may be held. The influence of the referendum on the political agenda depends on whether the referendum is initiated by representatives (ad hoc or optional referendum); or by a certain number of citizens (popular initiative); or whether it is a check on laws passed by the parliament (mandatory, suspensive and abrogative referendums). Furthermore, these distinctions are important for understanding the strategic character of referendums, i.e. the strategic use of optional referendums by the representatives (parliamentary parties, president etc.), or the representatives' anticipation and reaction to the possibility of the other forms of referendums. Referendum in 22 democracies are classified, and their 'functional properties' (Smith 1976) are analysed. In order to get a more precise picture on how referendums function as a part of political systems and how political actors use the referendum, three cases, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland, are analysed. Although the idea of giving the people a say is the common element of all forms of referendums, the differences between agenda-setting institutions explain why, how and under whose control 'the people's voice' is heard.