In a democracy, citizens can express their political opinions in a variety of ways. One of them is through a plebiscite, which consists of a consultation with all citizens with the right to vote so that they can comment on a matter of general interest. This means that the plebiscite is a participatory type of democratic instrument. In relation to its origin, the plebiscite concept comes from the Latin “plebiscitum”, which means the proposed law for the people, because it is scitum or decree issued by the mob, or the people in general.
In politics , it is customary to talk about plebiscitary action, which can be carried out by a popular initiative or by the initiative of the nation‘s rulers. There are two types of referendums: consultative and binding. The first is the one in which the citizenry casts its vote to express its opinion, that is, to transmit its criteria in relation to a political initiative. In this case, the result of the popular query should not necessarily be applied, as it is a simple query.
The binding plebiscite goes further, as it is a popular consultation whose results from the ballot boxes must be applied in a mandatory manner.
An illustrative historical example of a consultative plebiscite took place in Argentina, on November 25, 1984, to find out citizens’ opinions on the Peace Treaty agreed with Chile to resolve the Beagle conflict (dispute over the sovereignty of some islands located in the Beagle channel).
Although each constitutional text has a legal definition of what is meant by a plebiscite, in general most plebiscitary consultations meet the following requirements: that the consultation be a proposal by the president of the nation; that it is approved by the representatives of the people and, finally, that it is approved by the majority of those entitled to vote.
Consequently, the plebiscite is held as an election day, in such a way that citizens vote yes or no on the issue addressed.
Difference between referendum and plebiscite
While both concepts are similar, they are not equivalent. The referendum is a call in which the people express their will through the vote and in relation to an issue that affects the population as a whole. For example, in Spain, on December 6, 1978, the Spaniards expressed in a referendum their majority support for the Constitution determined by the representatives of the people.
Therefore, the referendum is a participation mechanism which ratifies or not a proposal. On the other hand, in the plebiscite, the people or the rulers create an initiative (a proposal for a legal norm) that will later be put to a vote.