Explaining the Paradox of Plebiscites

Matt Qvortrup, Brendan O Leary, Ronald Wintrobe

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    10 Citations (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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