Letting “the people(s)” decide: peace referendums and power-sharing settlements

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Referendums have been used to legitimate power-sharing settlements in deeply divided societies transitioning from conflict. This article assesses the capacity of referendum rules to facilitate the “voice” of multiple groups or “peoples” in the decision to share power as a “constitutional moment.” Drawing on the constitutional referendums in Northern Ireland in 1998 and Iraq in 2005, the author demonstrates that referendum rules matter in highlighting the variable degrees of support for the elite-negotiated deal on the part of the contending groups. The institutional design process prior to the referendum is crucial for incentivising groups to support the settlement, particularly the previously dominant group. When faced with a choice between a simple majority threshold and countermajoritarian procedures, majoritarianism is appropriate only in so far as the main groups see their constitutional preferences satisfied and concurrent majorities can be secured. A qualified majority referendum threshold to protect a minority group is appropriate for divided states where the groups are regionally concentrated and when the groups agree to such rules. Important for the legitimation of power-sharing, referendums highlight the likely variable extent of approval on the part of the main groups, necessitating ongoing efforts to foster public support for the deal.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)864-881
Number of pages18
Issue number5
Early online date9 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2018


  • power sharing
  • referendums
  • legitimation
  • deeply divided societies
  • ethnic conflict


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