Introduction / Definition

A plebiscite is a vote by the whole people and is often used synonymously with a referendum.  In the most recent literature a plebiscite has been defined as “an instrument, which allow[s] a government to appeal to people to express themselves with a yes or a no”[i].’The two terms do not always overlap in the legal, political and diplomatic literature as will be shown below. 

Originating from the Latin Plebs (common people) and Scitum (decree, from sciscere, to vote), the plebiscite was used to describe laws enacted by the Plebeians Assembly (Concilium Plebis) under the Roman Republic[ii]. In its modern form, the word plebiscite became widely used after the French Revolution when Napoleon Bonaparte used the device to secure legitimacy and approval for his rule and for the decision to crown himself emperor[iii]. This use of the plebiscite as a device for seeking approval for dictators has given the plebiscite a dubious reputation in much of the literature. In English the word plebiscite is often used synonymously with the word referendum. For example, the democratic votes at the held the instigation of Woodrow Wilson after the First World War were described as ‘plebiscites’[iv]. But in other countries the word has often been associated with dictators.

In the German literature, for example the use of plebiscites was supported by Carl Schmitt, an apologist for the NSDAP-regime, who proposed that a dictator, as a “single trusted representative”, could use plebiscites to “decide in the name of the…people”[v], and it was denounced by democratically inclined writers like Robert Michels, who dismissed the plebiscite as it would allow “a Führer to lead the people astray through unclear questions, which he himself would be solely entitled to interpret afterwards”[vi].

In French jurisprudence a distinction is commonly drawn between referendums and plebiscites. According to one authoritative definition; “While the referendum allows the people to express themselves freely, the plebicite allows a person … to legitimize himself by posing a question to the people who answered in the affirmative” ‘Alors que le référendum permet au peuple de s’exprimer librement, le plébicite permet à une personne ... de se légitimer en posant au peuple une question qui appelle une réponse positive“[vii].

This use of the word plebiscite is reflected in the use of the word in philosophy and even in fiction. French author George Sand (1871:306) wrote “Le plébiscite..[est]  un attentat à la liberté du peuple lui-même "[viii], Hannah Arendt(1906-1975) – in On Revolution – wrote that the “plebiscite puts an end to the citizen’s right to vote, to choose and to control the government”[ix]. And in his posthumous novel The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1896-1957) wrote an account of the Italian plebiscites at the time of the Risorgimento, which vividly expressed the view that plebiscites were less than fair and democratic.

 “You know that everyone in Donnafugata voted ‘yes’ [said Don Ciccio]. Don Fabrizio did know this; and that was why his reply merely changed a small enigma in to an enigma of history. Before voting many had come to him for advice; all of them had been exhorted sincerely to vote ‘yes’. Don Fabrizio, in fact, could not see what else to do; whether treating it as a fait accompli or as an act merely theatrical and banal, whether taking it as a historical necessity or considering the trouble these humble folks might get into if their negative attitude were known”[x].

In the light of this why do dictators hold plebiscites? When do they do so and what is the frequency of plebiscites.

Historically, autocratic regimes have used plebiscites. To wit. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Ayatollah Khomeini, and Hazez and Bashar al-Assad and both Papa and Baby Doc’ Duvalier held plebiscites.

Generally, plebiscites have been rare in Communist Countries, though votes have been held in, e.g Romania under Nicolae Ceaușescu. The number of occasions when dictators have submitted issues to the voters has increased steadily since the French voters were asked to consent to the question; 'Napoléon Bonaparte sera-t-il consul à vie?’ -‘Should Napoléon  Bonaparte be Consul for Life?’[xi]. (See: Figure One)

Figure One: Plebiscites in Non-Democratic States 1800-2012

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Source: C2D-Database.  Selection Criteria: Before 1974 Plebiscites held in single-party states. For cases after 1974, countries that scored 6 or 7 on the Freedom House Index

In more recent years, the plebiscite has been used frequently in enclaves with Russian speakers in the former Soviet Union. For example, in Abkhasia in 1999, in South Ossetia on independence in 2008, in Transnistria on accession to the Russian Federation in 2006 and most recently in Crimea on independence and accession to the Russian Federation in 2014.

Often the states that secede after such plebiscites become ‘Phantom states’ which are unrecognised by the international community apart from a sponsor state. This is the case with states created after plebiscites in the aforementioned cases (Apart from Crimea), as well as it is true for entities established after votes in Nagorno-Karabakh (sponsored by Armenia) in 1991 and Northern Cyprus (Sponsored by Turkey) in 1983[xii].

But not all plebiscites are alike. Some have dubious legitimacy while others reflect – however imperfectly – the prevailing sentiment among the people.

To understand the use of the plebiscite it is useful to make a distinction between two ideal types, respectively Legitimizing and Repressive Plebiscites.

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Illustration B: Ballot paper from the 1852 plebiscite in France on the rule of Napoléon III. The voter has but one option ‘Oui’ (‘yes’).


Legitimizing Plebiscites (LP) are votes held in non-democratic countries which are aimed at legitimizing the regime. Even non-democratic regimes need support and on occasion plebiscites held in such countries contribute to giving an air of legitimacy to the autocratic regime.  As an example of an LP one could mention the plebiscite in Bangladesh in 1977 following a military coup of Major General Ziaur Rahman. While hardly free and fair the plebiscite did legitimise Rahman’s rule and was a reasonable reflection of a general support for the general[xiii].

Sometimes LPs are held not only to legitimize action within the regime but also to gain external legitimacy. Another possibility is that plebiscites are held to give the autocratic ruler an air of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. This is how many military regimes allied to the US used the plebiscite during the Cold War. A notorious example is Ferdinand Marcos. In the plebiscite held in 1975, a commentator concluded that “There were two audiences, one in the Philippines, which continued to include outspoken dissidents, and another in the U.S. Congress, which contained critics threatening to withhold aid from his [Marcos’] regime”[xiv].  Such plebiscites are not free and fair, but unlike RPs (See below) they may provide a certain degree of legitimacy for the regime despite irregularities.

Repressive Plebiscites (RP) are votes held in autocratic regimes as a means of controlling the population. Rather giving legitimacy to the regime the vote is an exercise in control. By forcing the voters to turn out to vote – sometimes on the pain of severe sanction, the regime conveys the impression that they are in control of the population, moreover the vote provides an opportunity to test the devotion of the people. An example of an RP, could be the plebiscite held in Iraq in 2002 in which Saddam Hussein secured 100 percent support on a 100 percent turnout [xv]. Another example is provided by the plebiscite in Germany in 1934, on whether Hitler should become President. The NSDAP-regime used the plebiscite as part of its re-education of political prisoners. Though not always to the desired effect. A civil servant, who was in charge of the voting at a concentration camp in Schleswig-Holstein, reported with Orwellian candor that although two-thirds of the inmates had voted ‘yes’, a “third have still not understood, or are willing to understand, what today was all about”[xvi]. Another example of a RP is provided by the plebiscite in the wake of the coup d’état in Greece in 1968. The vote was held under martial law and strict compulsory voting applied for citizens from 21 to 70 years of age. As the vote was not secret, the voters had to decide between a range of different coloured slips and throw them into the ballot boxes before the election officials[xvii]. Repressive “plebiscites in totalitarian systems”, in the words of Juan Linz, “test[s] the effectiveness of the party and its mass organizations in their success in getting out the vote”[xviii].

Reflecting the ‘violent passion for unanimity’[xix] which often characterizes totalitarian regimes, repressive plebiscites are more likely to occur in regimes where there is a perceived need to control the population. Thus RPs are common in Muslim countries with secular rulers (e.g. Egypt under Nasser). RPs also frequently occur in countries with high levels of ethnic fractionalization (e.g. in Syria the regime has often turned to plebiscites to assert control over an ethnically diverse population).


References / Further Reading

[i] Fimiani, Enzo (2012) ‘Elections, Plebiscitary Elections and Plebiscites in Fascist Italy and Nazi-Germany: Comparative Perspectives’, in Ralph Jessen and Hedwig Richter (Editors) Voting for Hitler and Stalin: Elections Under 20th Century Dictatorships, Campus: Frankfurt aM, p. 231

[ii] Hölkeskamp, K. J. (1988). Das plebiscitum Ogulnium de sacerdotibus: Überlegungen zu Authentizität und Interpretation der livianischen Überlieferung.Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 51-67.

[iii] Qvortrup, M (2014) Referendums and Ethnic Conflict, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, p.18

[iv] The classic work in this literature is Wambaugh, S. (1933) Plebiscites since the World War, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

[v] Schmitt, C. (1988) The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (Translated by Ellen Kennedy), Cambridge: MIT Press, p.34

[vi] Michels, Robert (1925) Zur Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie: Untersuchungen über die oligarchischen Tendenzen des Gruppenlebens, Leipzig: Alfred Kröner Verlag, p. 431

[vii] Guillaume-Hoffnung, M. (1987), Le referendum, Paris: PUF,p.14. See also: Jean-Marie Denquin (1976) Référendum et plébiscite. Paris : Librairie generale de droit et de jurisprudence.

[viii] Sand, Georges (1871) Journal d'un voyageur pendant la guerre, Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, p.306

[ix] Arendt, Hannah 1965 On Revolution, London Penguin, p.228

[x] Di Lampedusa, G. T. (2007). The leopard. Random House LLC, p.105

[xi] Rosenblatt, À. François (2001) Le plébiscite de 1802 Napoléon Bonaparte sera-t-il Consul á Vie ? La Révolution française et l'Alsace: Napoléon et l'Alsace, 2001, vol. 10, p. 15

[xii] Scheindlin, D. (2012). Phantom Referendums in Phantom States: Meaningless Farce or a Bridge to Reality?. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 18(1), 65-87.

[xiii] Rashiduzzaman, M.  (1978) ‘Bangladesh in 1977: Dilemmas of Military Rulers’ in Asian Survey, 18, pp.126-134

[xiv], P.179

[xv] Altman, D. (2011) Direct Democracy World Wide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.92

[xvi] Cited in Omland, Frank (2012) ‘”Germany Totally National Socialist”- National Socialist Reichstag Elections and Plebiscites, 1933-1938: The Example of Schleswig Holstein Elections and Plebiscites in Fascist Italy and Nazi-Germany: Comparative Perspectives’, in Ralph Jessen and Hedwig Richter (Editors) Voting for Hitler and Stalin: Elections Under 20th Century Dictatorships, Campus: Frankfurt aM, p. 259.

[xvii] Alivizatos, Nicos C. Les institutions politiques de la Grèce à travers les crises 1922-1974, Paris 1979, S. 213-215.

[xviii] Linz, J.J. (2000) Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, p.92

[xix] Friedrich, C.J. and Brzezinski, Z.K. (1965) Totalitarian Dictatorships and Autocracy. Second Edition. New York: Praeger, 163