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An Excerpt from “Democratic Quality in Southern Europe,” edited by Tiago Fernandes

Fueled by new data from the Varieties of Democracy project, Democratic Quality in Southern Europe takes a close look at the democratic trajectories of France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain over the past fifty years.

In Portugal, the plebiscite, known as referendo, is the only existing legal instrument of direct democracy, having been established following two constitutional revisions in the 1980s. In Portugal, there are no mandatory constitutional referendums, popular initiatives or abrogative referenda. Alongside Greece, as we will see below, it is one of the Southern Europe countries with a most restrictive use of direct democracy.

Miranda and Medeiros (2006) argued that the absence of a constitutional referendum is explained by the negative memory of the national plebiscite on the 1933 Constitution, which was a foundational moment of the New State (Estado Novo) dictatorship (1933-74). This memory seems to be symbolically stronger and more politically present in Portugal than in other post-authoritarian democracies, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, where the need to submit constitutional revisions to the popular vote was inserted in their founding democratic constitutions.

In the 1970s, right-wing parties frequently resorted to a strategy of trying to change the constitution via a referendum. During the transitional years, the center-right always campaigned for holding referenda for the approval of the constitution (Prime Minister Palma Carlos proposal in June 1974; the center-right PSD at the end of 1975). But these campaigns failed. In the late 1970s the center-right again proposed a referendum on the revision of the democratic constitution of 1976, considered too left-wing and with revolutionary overtones. By doing so, PSD’s leader Sá Carneiro sought to correct what he deemed a set of revolutionary and ideological biases in the Constitution (Filipe 2013). However, this also came to naught. It can be said that in Portugal demands for direct democracy have been mainly related to disputes over the Constitution, as a means for constitutional rupture by right-wing political forces (Filipe 2013).

The process underlying the institution of plebiscites in democratic Portugal was troubled. The local plebiscite was the first to be recognized, in the constitutional revision of 1982. Despite various proposals for consecrating the plebiscite and the constitutional referendum, plebiscites at the national level were introduced only by the second constitutional revision in 1989 (Miranda and Medeiros 2006). In the end, it was decided that only the government or the parliament could call a plebiscite. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many legislators and constitutional lawyers (e.g., Jorge Miranda, considered one of the fathers of the constitution) defended that this instrument should be built with particularly demanding legal guarantees, since it was considered that while it could be used correctly in established democracies, that was still not the case of Portugal at the period. In concrete terms, there were fears that it could jeopardize representative democracy. Some of its more radical critics even saw plebiscites as a form of a coup d’état, which would completely constrain the parliament’s role. Interestingly, during the first constitutional revision in 1982, the right-wing parties had as its main proposal granting the President of the Republic with the power to convene a plebiscite (Filipe 2013), but by the time of the next constitutional revision (1989) it had abandoned this position.

In Portugal, three plebiscites were performed at the national level during the democratic period. Two occurred in 1998, concerning regionalization and the decriminalization of abortion. The electorate rejected both measures (Gallagher 1999; Freire and Baum 2003), but the results were not binding, due to low participation rates. A third occurred in 2007, again regarding the decriminalization of abortion. This time the “yes” won, leading to a change in legislation, even if the result was not, again, legally binding (Freire 2008), because the results were congruent with the executive’s position (Morel 2007). We may wonder why in the case of the 1998 plebiscites neither the victory of the government’s position nor a significant participation rate could be secured. The fact that the issues in question were divisive within the Socialist Party, which was the underlying reason for calling the plebiscite in the first place, certainly did not help mobilize its electorate (Filipe 2013). In fact, there were strong disagreements regarding the decriminalizing of abortion and the regionalization map within the party (tough not about regionalization itself) (Freire and Baum 2003). The generalized assumption that the “yes” was going to win in the abortion plebiscite might also have demobilized a few favorable voters, while mobilizing the “no” voters. In 2007, not only was the Socialist Party, again the incumbent, more united in the campaign for decriminalizing abortion, but also the main opposition party PSD did not take an official “no” position (Freire 2008; Filipe 2013).

We should note that the number of implemented plebiscites (3) contrasts with the number of plebiscite proposals presented between 1989 and 2011 (39). This is due to the fact that the criteria required for a referendum proposal to be accepted are very strict. Of the 39 proposals, the Communist Party made only three, being the least enthusiastic party in defending the use of the referendum (Filipe 2013).

Finally, in none of the plebiscites was it possible to surpass the participation threshold. However, the results were respected by political actors. Thus, even if the results were not binding, the simple deployment of this instrument seems to have conditioned the subsequent political and policy-making processes. Indeed, the decriminalization of abortion, voted down in 1998 (without binding effects), was subject to legislative change only after a new plebiscite in 2007, even if nothing legally prevented the majority in favor of the change to achieve that goal through legislation in parliament.

(excerpted from chapter 3)

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