It is quite common to hear the words plebiscite or referendum when the political situation of a country gets unstable and is approaching an unacceptable stage. If there are substantial objections from the subjects of the government or the opposition regarding the policies of the active government, the common process is to stage protests against the particular political party in control. Usually the party responds by holding a referendum or plebiscite. Many a times, people do not understand the difference between a referendum and a plebiscite and use the words either wrongly or as a replacement for each other. There are some major differences between the two and it depends on party to party to decide which one of them they are going to plan. The decision is usually based on what information they need and how much expression they are ready to give the common man.
In very simple words, a referendum is the phrasing which describes what the vote is about. On the other hand, a plebiscite is actually the vote itself, that is, the election for the referendum.
To begin with, a referendum is that type of a vote that is nationwide and is normally conducted in an attempt to resolve issues. There are basically two special types of referendums; the second of which is often referred to as a plebiscite. Referendum is that voting process which is staged if there is a demand from a prescribed number of citizens, for example by petition signing. This is sometimes called an initiative. Plebiscite, however, is in many cases used for those votes that were held in genuinely undemocratic conditions and in many countries gives a bad impression about the democracy situation of a country.
A referendum is a provision that permits the voters to either accept or reject a policy question or a public policy measure at a formal election. The particulars of a referendum vary in different states. It can be binding or it can be advisory. Its application may be state wide or just local. Moreover, it can be constitutional or legislative. A plebiscite is the vote by the people for a question given to them. This is more or less similar to a referendum but the term plebiscite has been recently used more commonly in context with a change in sovereignty.
A major difference between the two forms of voting on a particular issue is the initiation. Referendums are termed initiatives for a reason. Whereas the initiation of a referendum may not always involve those in power, as has been the case in citizen initiated referendums in the past, a plebiscite can only be initiated by the representative authorities. The citizens do not have the power to initiate a plebiscite. This has an important implication. Since a plebiscite cannot be initiated by the citizens of the country, they are clearly no means of empowering the common citizens. They maybe even held in an undemocratic environment and the result ignored altogether.
Referendums cannot always be used to give further decision making power to the authorities. Plebiscites, however, are sometimes used for the sole purpose of legitimizing a particular government decision by the people who would otherwise oppose it. This is also the reason behind the fact that although referendums might be used frequently, plebiscites are used rarely, in situations where the government is desperate that their proposal is not rejected.
Summary of differences expressed in points:
- Referendum-phrasing of the vote; plebiscite; the vote itself
- Referendum-held in a democratic environment; plebiscite-usually held in an undemocratic environment
- Referendum gives the option of accepting or rejecting any policy, plebiscite is the vote on a question given to them, implies a change in sovereignty
- Referendum can be initiated by the citizens (citizen-initiated referendums); plebiscite- only initiated by the authorities
- Referendums- a stronger way to get the opinion of the masses across; plebiscite- a technique used by the govt. to legitimize any policy
- Referendum can usually empower the people; plebiscite-usually empowers the govt. on the expense of the masses
- Referendum; held very commonly; plebiscite-seldom held, when the govt. is desperate to win support for a decision (in some cases by tricking the masses to think something else!)