Explaining the Paradox of Plebiscites

Matt Qvortrup, Brendan O Leary, Ronald Wintrobe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Recent referendums show that autocratic regimes consult voters even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. They have been doing so with increasing frequency since Napoleon consulted French citizens in 1800. Why and when do dictatorial regimes hold referendums they are certain they will win? Analysing the 162 referendums held in autocratic and non-free states in the period 1800–2012, the article shows that referendums with a 99% yes-vote tend to occur in autocracies with high ethnic fractionalization and, in part, in sultanistic (tinpot or tyrannical) regimes, but generally not in communist (totalitarian) states. An explanation is proposed for this variation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-219
Number of pages18
JournalGovernment and Opposition
Issue number2
Early online date10 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2020


  • autocracies
  • dictatorships
  • plebiscites
  • referendums

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Administration

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