Plebiscite Definition

Plebiscite, a vote by the electorate of a nation, region, or locality on a specific question.

Historical Introduction

In modern times, plebiscites have been held to determine the wishes of the inhabitants of a country or area as to their choice of sovereignty and have constituted an important political means of self-determination for a number of peoples and nations. The use of plebiscites in this sense originated at the time of the French Revolution, supposedly as an alternative to forcible annexations and wars of conquest. The plebiscites held after 1793, however, in areas including Belgium and the Rhineland, were accompanied by the intimidation of voters in order to assure decisions desired by the French government.

As democratic instruments, plebiscites were used after the resurgence of nationalistic sentiments in Europe in 1848. They played a prominent role, for example, in the long struggle for the independence and unification of Italy. In 1852 a notable plebiscite was held in France by Napoleon III to give the appearance of popular approval to the coup d’etat by which he had overthrown the republic and established the second empire.

In the 20th century, important plebiscites resulted in the separation of Norway from Sweden in 1905 and in the reacquisition of the Saarland by Germany in 1935. More recently, they have been used in Africa to learn the preferences of newly independent peoples for their national sovereignty.

Source: “Plebiscite,”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia

See Also

Electoral Reform
Law and Society
Martial Law
Bicameral System

Plebiscite in Constitutional Law

From the Comparative Constitutions Project: see Referendum


In relation to the plebiscite and constitutional law, Francesco Biagi[1] made the following observation: Referendums, plebiscites, petitions, citizens’ initiatives and recalls represent the most common forms of popular consultations by which the people are asked to vote directly on an issue, a policy or an elected representative (direct democracy). Both from a theoretical and practical standpoint, drawing a clear-cut distinction among these consultations is extremely complicated. As far as the plebiscite is concerned, one cannot find a generally accepted definition within the literature, and in practice the term ‘plebiscite’ has been used to describe very (…)


Embracing mainstream international law, this section on plebiscite explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.


See Also

  • Electoral System
  • Electoral College
  • Voting


Further Reading

  • The entry “plebiscite” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press


Notes and References

  1. Max Planck Encyclopedia of Comparative Constitutional Law, Francesco Biagi, “Plebiscite” (2018, Germany, United Kingdom)

See Also

  • Legislative initiatives by citizens
  • Direct democracy

Hierarchical Display of Plebiscite

Politics > Electoral procedure and voting > Electoral system
Politics > Political framework > Political philosophy > Democracy > Direct democracy


Concept of Plebiscite

See the dictionary definition of Plebiscite.

Characteristics of Plebiscite

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Translation of Plebiscite

Thesaurus of Plebiscite

Politics > Electoral procedure and voting > Electoral system > Plebiscite
Politics > Political framework > Political philosophy > Democracy > Direct democracy > Plebiscite

See also