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Direct Democracy in the Baltic States

Institutions, Procedures and Practice in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania


Evren Somer

Over the last decades, provisions for direct democracy have increasingly been added to new constitutions around the world, including in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Using a comparative legal approach, this book identifies a large set of direct democratic instruments in the Baltics that are being activated either automatically, by public authorities or by the citizens. Although direct democracy should empower the people to share state power and to take political decisions over the heads of their representatives, the results of its practical use between 1991 and 2014 do not confirm these assumptions. Besides informal aspects there are many procedural obstacles in each country that restrict not only the use of such tools but also the chance that the referendum will pass.
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VI. The quality of direct democracy in the Baltic states


A. A comparison of use and success of Baltic referendums

To illustrate the use and performance of direct democracy in the Baltic states, all 35 referendums held between 1991 and 2014 have been put into one figure (see Figure 4 and also Table 4). A timeframe of almost 25 years is a solid period with which to make a judgement about the practical value of Baltic popular rights. Within two decades there were only four required referendums and most referendums (18) held in the Baltic republics were triggered from above – by the public authorities. However, in at least four cases it was a semi-plebiscite and thus the referendum was promoted by the joint action of both authorities and citizens.

Despite the large number of top-down referendums, it should be noted that authorities’ referendums in the Baltic states were almost never used to empower governing majorities or the president (in the sense of extending the term, altering the balance between the government/president and parliament), as is the case in less democratic societies (e.g. Belarus).547 Baltic top-down referendums were instead used strategically for partisan purposes in order to strengthen the parties’ public image before parliamentary elections. Within 24 years, there was one plebiscite that might be considered critical, namely the Lithuanian failed plebiscite on the restoration of the presidential institution (see chapter V-B-2). Indeed, there are three main reasons that explain the absence of empowering referendums. As previously stated, first is the criterion of a...

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