Strengthening plebiscitary democracy with deliberative elements for democratic revitalization

Name: Irene Witting
Department: Public Law and Governance, Tilburg Law School, Tilburg University
Supervisors: prof. dr. Frank Hendriks, dr. Charlotte Wagenaar, dr. Ank Michels
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Project description

The central question of my PhD project is to what extent and how instruments of plebiscitary democracy can be strengthened with elements of deliberative democracy in order to supplement representative democracy. My focus is on the supply side, that is, on the institutional design of ‘hybrid democratic innovations’, i.e. innovations that combine deliberation and voting. An example of a hybrid democratic innovation is the citizens’ initiative review, in which, after the announcement of a referendum, a small group of citizens comes together, gathers information from experts, supporters and opponents, discusses this information extensively, and finally prepares a statement of their findings and considerations, which is distributed among voters in the referendum through the official voters’ pamphlet.

The point of departure of my PhD project are plebiscitary forms of democracy, being vote-centered forms like referendums. Like other democratic instruments, plebiscitary instruments are subject to challenges, such as polarization, rash decision-making, majority-decisions at the expense of minorities, and control or manipulation by political elites. Could deliberative democracy, oriented at consideration and discussion, strengthen plebiscitary democracy, for example by adding a deliberative stage to the referendum process? Existing research does not yet provide comprehensive insights.

My first sub-study comprises a systematic review of the existing literature on hybrid democratic innovations. Among other things, I provide an overview of the different combinations of referendums and deliberation already studied in the literature – such as the aforementioned citizens’ initiative review –, and the effects of these combinations on the realization of democratic values. In further studies, I look more in-depth at specific characteristics of hybrid democratic innovations, I analyze and compare interesting – either representative or exceptional – cases and I also focus on the political context. The political context is important to assess the potential of hybrid democratic innovations to revitalize Dutch democracy.