The Return of Direct Democracy? A look at the double-edged sword in Latin America

Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo

The idea of “one person one vote” has not been practical or doable for centuries for multiple reasons. Instead, we have moved to systems of representative democracy in most arenas, with certain exceptions, such as the United National General Assembly. Nonetheless, the application of direct democracy is still present and constantly put to use through instruments such as plebiscites and referendums, and any popular consultations. These tools have been used in many situations by governments around the entire globe in recent years, such as the famous Brexit referendum. This article will focus on the use of these tools in Latin America, especially in the two countries with the most frequent use of direct democracy: Uruguay and Ecuador.

Direct democracy and its application in modern societies have been questioned multiple times, especially regarding whether people voting actually translates directly into better decision-making. On these questions, some argue that giving people the power to make decisions directly provokes poorer outcomes. Others contend that, by definition, public consultations cannot be a failure as their results are a direct reflection of the population’s desires. An article published in 2016 by The Economist argues that direct democracy is a double-edged sword and its successful application will depend not only on the voting procedure when the consultation actually takes place but also on the previous bureaucratic aspects, such as who is allowed to bring forward a referendum proposal and what are the requirements to make it happen. An additional concern regards the use and misuse of instruments of direct democracy by those in power to legitimize their perspectives, and thus justify their decision-making. This, can provoke complications and alter the equilibrium in systems based on checks and balances. 

Direct democracy often brings up the celebrated idea of “one country one vote” as illustrated by the UN General Assembly. However, when looking at the calls for referendums and other public consultations, it is important to also understand the background of the situation and why that particular topic or law is deemed to need a special process for decision-making. One must also consider the wording of the questions presented to the voters and whether those represent issues in complete control of the government. An additional factor to keep in mind is the levels of accountability that the country presents regarding the results of referendums.

One interesting example is the 2016 referendum on the Peace Agreement in Colombia. Once the agreement had been drafted, Colombians over the age of 18 were asked to vote yes or no on its approval in order to make it official. After a voting process with an extremely narrow margin of difference, 50.2% of the population decided they did not agree with the document, voting no in the referendum. Nonetheless, after minor changes, then-president Juan Manuel Santos still moved forward on the peace process with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and made the agreement official. Thus bringing up the question of whether the referendum was even useful. 

Colombian voters at the polls in 2016. Source: BBC

Referendums and plebiscites are not uncommon in the LATAM region. However, two countries stand out due to the frequent use of direct democracy: Uruguay and Ecuador. Although these two nations are similar in how often citizens go to the polls, their constitutions and law conceive referendums and plebiscites differently. 

On the one hand, Uruguay is often celebrated as a champion of democracy in the region, and especially as a champion of the use of direct democracy. In the last century, Uruguayans have gone to the polls more than 25 times in cases of popular consultations. Some have argued that the high frequency of these events could have negative consequences and wear down people’s willingness and desire to participate, as well as to question whether their high frequency is a reflection of deficiencies in their representative democracy. However, it is important to notice here that although the terms referendum and plebiscite are often used interchangeably, these have different legal and practical connotations in Uruguay. According to the constitution, plebiscites are not tools of direct democracy, rather they are the last step in the process of constitutional reform. In other words, in cases of changes to the constitution, Uruguayan law requires a plebiscite to take place. Referendums, on the other hand, are instruments of direct democracy and serve to change legislation partially or completely. For a referendum to take place in Uruguay, 25% of voters must signal their agreement with the process. Historically, Uruguay has participated in referendums mostly brought about or proposed by the people in order to reduce conflict levels and address social disputes, such as the legality of abortion and protections for LGBTQ+ populations, among others. 

Campaigns during the most recent referendum in Uruguay (March 2022). Source: Infobae

In the case of Ecuador, what jumps out is not necessarily the difference in terminology but how the bureaucratic requirements to move forward with a referendum could favor some proponents over others. According to the 2008 Constitution, a popular consultation can be proposed by the executive power, the National Assembly, local governments, or the general population. However, while the president only needs to receive approval from the Constitutional Court regarding the legality of the questions, when a referendum is proposed by the people, they must collect signatures supporting their referendum, which must be equal to 5% of the electorate. This bureaucratic difference according to Sofia Velasco Ayala, a researcher on direct democracy, contributes to consultations coming from the president’s office, to be much more likely to move forward and reach the voting phase. In fact, Ecuador is the country with the highest rate of referendums called by the executive power in the LATAM region. 

The cases of these two countries highlight two interesting facts. One, as made evident by the Uruguayan case, despite the extensive development of theory and literature, we are still not defining and applying concepts related to democracy in the same way in the region, let alone in the world. Thus, comparisons regarding the frequency of application of direct democracy might not be the most appropriate to understand the state of our democracies. Second, while in Uruguay most referendums are proposed by the people, in Ecuador most come from the president. This dichotomy stands out as some argue that while in Uruguay direct democracy is being used to open more space for people to voice their opinions, in Ecuador the same tool is used to legitimate the decisions of those in power when other legislative structures disagree or are blocked due to political motives. 

  • Does the use of direct democracy hinder representative democracy?
  • Could the frequency of popular consultations affect people’s perception of the state of their country’s democracy?
  • Are there certain topics that should be out of reach of direct democracy instruments?

Suggested Readings

The Economist. “Let the people fail to decide”, 2016

Vargas Cárdenas, Andrea. “Referendum y Plebiscito en Uruguay”, Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile, 2020

Velasco Ayala, Sofia. “The people versus the Executive Branch: the use of popular consultations in Ecuador”, Democracias Vol.8, 2020


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The Return of Direct Demo…

by Alejandra Palacios Jaramillo time to read: 5 min
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