WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
Democracy is the world’s largest type of government, and it has received wide acceptance from people of different races and religions. No wonder the concept is known to be about the people, their beliefs, and values. And even countries that do not literally practice democracy in totality, feature some elements of it in their governing processes in order to gain acceptance.
Democracy is a powerful tool in modern-day politics that gears the government towards satisfying the yearnings of the people. It has also helped in the actualization of fundamental human rights of marginalized persons and groups, which may cut across gender, religion, ethnicity, education, status, and so on.
This article is meant to guide the reader to discover the origin of democracy, understand the concept of democracy, the types of democracy, its features, as well as benefits. By the end of this article, even some of the arguments for and against democracy must have also been looked at.
ORIGIN OF DEMOCRACY
According to the online resource ‘History World, the origin of democracy can be traced back to the ancient Greek State of Athens. The history goes thus:
Democracy has two preconditions. The community must be small enough for citizens to be capable of attending debates and voting on issues. And its economy must give these citizens enough leisure to engage in politics; in the ancient world, this means that there must be slaves to do most of the work. Both circumstances prevail in Athens.
The citizen democrats of Athens are those males, over the age of eighteen, who are sons of an Athenian father (after 451 BC the mother must be Athenian as well). They number no more than 50,000 in the whole of Attica. In addition to these citizens, the population includes about 25,000 metics (metoikoi, or foreigners trading in Athens, for this, is a major commercial center), together with free women and children and perhaps 100,000 slaves. This gives a total of about 300,000 people. So the voting citizens form at most 20% of the population.
The Mechanics of Athenian Democracy
Democracy as a system can be traced to have begun during the mid 5th century where citizens have been involved in governance as the case may be.
The council of the Athenian city had to meet at least once every quarter (four times a year). Every adult male citizen has a voice to contribute to the council where decisions are made. About an estimated 5000 persons were in attendance during deliberations, which appeared to be a huge challenge. Slaves during the period served as the police though without a structure that supported their operations. They ensured that meetings had security and ensured that loitering around was controlled. The system gained more structuring in about 400 BC when compensations were paid to individuals who attended meetings for their time.
Orators who were practicing politicians were mainly the ones who were involved in speaking when debates were carried out since it was a challenge to have everyone who was in attendance. They were considered to be regular and famous and their political strides gained much respect.
Another 500 persons were assigned by lots to establish what was known as the principle of amateurism. 50 were selected at the village level as a representation of the tribes which make up Athenian society. The 500 were involved in fixing the business of the day and they were referred to as the boule.
Everyday administrative running of the city was done by one of the 50 selected individuals by lot. They served for a period of one month each. Moreso, the chairman of the boule changed every day as selected from the 50. This implied that every member of the council had an opportunity to be head of state at least once a year.
DEFINITION OF DEMOCRACY
Democracy as a term has had several forms of definitions by various scholars. Such definitions are done from the perspective of the definer and it may not sufficiently explain the entirety of its concept. Democracy is however a concept that is supposedly centered around the choices of the people. It entails a system that is totally or largely dependent on the people and their views.
According to Collins Online Dictionary, democracy is:
- Government in which the people hold the ruling power either directly or through elected representatives; rule by the ruled
- A country, state, etc. with such government
- Majority rule
- The principle of equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment, or the practice of this principle
- The common people, esp. as the wielders of political power
This entails that democracy is a system of government where operations are carried out by the people’s will and decisions are made by them or approved by them. In this case, the people meet together to make decisions, that is in a situation where the population is not overwhelming, or the will of the people is sort in a situation where there is an uncontrollable population.
Another way to look at it is that democracy is about processes that are established and executed by the popular opinion within the area of jurisdiction. This implies that the rule is by the majority of the citizens. For instance, the system through which government officials come into the office is a choice of the larger number of citizens who participated in the process. These citizens are also required to elect another set of representatives who will represent their interests by checkmating the actions of the top government officials.
The concept of democracy also ensures that all humans are treated equally, and the system must provide for the well-being of the individuals who make it be. Democracy is also about protecting the interests of citizens within its reach. By implication, their rights and privileges must be ensured. This way, it is more or less a way of paying back to the people who made it be.
Finally, democracy from the above coinage suggests that power is held by the people. The implication of this is that when the people who are elected fall short of the expectations of the people, they can be voted out of power. The people can embark on protests to register their dissatisfaction with the dealings of the government. This school of thought resides with the definition of democracy by Abraham Lincoln, a one-time American president who defines it as “government of the people, by the people and for the people”.
EXAMPLES OF DEMOCRACY
Democracy as stated earlier has received a wide range of acceptance, which means that a larger percentage of countries in the world practice democracy. A typical example is the United States of America, where a lot of rights of the citizens are respected and protected.
In addition, the rule of law is strongly upheld and a degree of independence has been granted to the judiciary. It is also important to mention that the United States of America is one country whose citizens are considered very important and are well protected.
The American election is one of the elections in the world with a high rate of global views and has mostly been appraised to be free and fair. The distribution of power between the two major political parties has been fair enough, and the system has witnessed high transparency and accountability rates.
Nigeria is another country with a democracy patterned after the United States of America. The federal structure of government and the type of legislature is typical of that of the United States. The Nigerian constitution is very close to that of the United States. Just that the Nigerian situation has not been dutifully observed due to the economic and social limitations of the third world country of Nigeria.
Examples of the top 10 most democratic governments in the world
- New Zealand
TYPES OF DEMOCRACY
Democracy in its entirety can be viewed in mainly two ways, the direct and indirect (also known as representative) types. These types of democracy have been in existence since the creation of democracy itself. However, the direct form of democracy was formed along with democracy itself before the need for an indirect type was birthed.
Direct democracy is the type of democracy that began from its very inception. When the community needed a decision to be made, citizens, especially male adults were required to meet together to deliberate on issues in order to reach a decision. This was a system practiced in the early Athenian political system. It is also a practice in small organizational set-ups of modern days. This type of democracy may appear ideal when it is looked at from a theoretical angle because it tends to carry everyone along. However, in practice, it is definitely a hard nut to crack because you cannot gather a large number of people and expect them to have a decent discussion. A lot will feel marginalized because they may not have the opportunity to be seen, not to talk of being heard. Others may not have enough patience to wait for their turn to contribute. And the list keeps going.
In a direct democracy, the powers of legislative bodies are mostly limited if at all they even exist. The system is characterized by strong local balloting and referendums which are used as mediums for decision making. Citizens can make laws, amend them, make appeals, as well as even make amendments for constitutional provisions.
It is important to note that direct democracy in modern times is more or less a theoretical masterpiece that fits more into imaginations than in practice. Because its outlook cannot contain the existing population of any modern society, except if such setting is that of a family or a small corporate organization.
Indirect /Representative Democracy
Since it has become an unachievable thing to gather everyone around in order to make decision-making processes possible and easier, the idea of representation became inevitable. The people are required to select for themselves fewer people to represent their interests and opinions in the affairs of government.
In most modern democracies, the government is elected by the people, a legislature is also elected by the people to make decisions regarding the government on their behalf. For example, in some democracies such as that of the United States of America, the people elect the President at the national level, as well as the representatives who will serve both in the house of representatives and in the senate. The same applies in the state level where the people are also responsible for voting the governor and members of the state legislature.
In some other democratic settings, the people are only involved in choosing their representatives, that is the legislature. The legislature and then responsible for choosing the national leader such as the President or the Prime Minister. Such is an example of the representative democracy practiced in Britain and in Canada.
In every representative democracy, the constitution serves as the guiding document for the activities of the legislature who are the representatives of the people. The same constitution also provides for the process through which these representatives are overseen by the people who have elected them to be their representatives. Also, there has to be an active, unbiased, and independent judiciary to ensure the enactment of the legislative acts.
It is an important advantage of representative democracy that it is cheaper and easier to handle because only a few people are involved in the decision-making process on behalf of many. For example, in the U.S, a state has only two senators who represent it at the national level. In Nigeria for instance, there are three senators who represent a state in the national assembly. Again representative democracy encourages the participation of citizens in political affairs because it makes them feel carried along in government since there are people representing their interests.
CHARACTERISTICS OF DEMOCRACY
Democracy is the most popular type of government and it possesses a number of features that we will be looking at in this article. Since democracy is centered on the people, its goal is to ensure that that people’s interests are protected and ensured. The features every democracy must possess are as follows:
The Presence of A Constitution
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a constitution as the basic principles and laws of a nation, state, or social group that determine the powers and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people in it
The presence of a constitution means that the government of the day is not planning on stealing the rights of the citizens who brought it to office. Since the constitution is the document that guides the affairs of the government and protects the rights of the citizens, it watches the excesses of the government and makes sure they are on course with the governance of the land.
The constitution stipulates the duties of government, the rights of citizens, as well as their obligations. The same constitution spells out the processes involved in selecting government officials and their tenure in office. Again it spells out the criteria for obtaining citizenship in order to enjoy some privileges.
Periodic Free And Fair Election
An election is an acceptable method of choosing or selecting some individuals or groups of individuals by people to occupy public offices for specific functions. The choice of whoever emerges as the holder of such office is determined by a majority of persons who participated in the selection process.
Every democracy must witness the event of an election in choosing or changing public officeholders. And for an election to be said to be free and fair, it must be void of duress, intimidation, and manipulation. This means that the electorates must choose to vote out of free will; they must be allowed to choose the candidate(s) of their choice, and must not be intimidated in any way before and during the process. The process and results must also be free from manipulation. This means that results must not be altered. In most elections, external observers are allowed to witness the elections to give an unbiased view that the election was free and fair.
The process of free and fair elections cannot be overemphasized in a democracy. This ensures that the process and outcome were determined by the people. Such elections must be held periodically in order to have power move to other people. This process accounts for a democratic existence.
The Rule of Law
Rule of law is simply the adherence to due process of the law. The rule of law expects that everyone is treated equally before the law and that no one is above the law.
The United Nations views the rule of law as a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions, and entities, whether private or public (including the state), are accountable for the laws that have been enacted, enforced on all classes of individuals, and administered by an independent judiciary, and they align with international human rights norms and standards. In its operation, certain standards are employed to ensure its adherence and to be sure that the law stands supreme and there is fairness in the application of the law, separation of power in the processes of government, participation in decision making by citizens, assurance about the legality of the law and a legal process that is completely transparent.
The rule of law is one key ingredient that makes democracy about the people. It shows that the people are respected and cared for and the system is accountable to the people at all times. In projecting the tenets of democracy, the rule of law also enhances equality of all citizens in the distribution of resources, and in litigations.
Four Basic Principles of The Rule of Law
The rule of law survives on four basic principles. These are the core values that make the rule of law viable. These basic principles are as follows:
- Impartiality: The principle of impartiality seeks a just course for everyone. This means that everyone will be treated according to what they deserve. Anyone who merits a reward should be rewarded, and anyone who deserves a punishment should be punished.
- Equality Before the Law: Under this principle, the law is said to be above and every other person is horizontally parallel before the law. This is similar to the principle of impartiality, however, they differ in terms of administration
- Fundamental Human Rights: This principle emphasizes the rights and privileges of citizens and ensures that they are guarded and preserved. Such rights may include the freedom of speech, right to life, right to freedom of movement, etc.
- Supremacy of the Law: The rule of law places the law above all else. It is viewed as the final authority for adjudication and hurting parties must seek its course for justice.
Political parties are organized groups of people who come together to compete in and contest for political authority with the hope of acquiring and exercising it within their scope of political jurisdiction. Political parties are formed by individuals or groups and funded by the same. The sole aim is to seek to hold political office and even when they fail to win, they play a vital role in holding the ruling party accountable. They are viewed as the opposition.
Every democracy must allow the existence of political parties to contest elections and prove their credibility to the people. Political parties facilitate the dispensation of democracy because it encourages participation of individuals in the political process. Individuals who join political parties have the opportunity of influencing policies that may shape the polity.
Multiple political parties are allowed to operate in order to have a democratic outlook. States establish their electoral acts which stipulate criteria for the creation and running of political parties. Individuals or groups that meet up such demands must be allowed to operate so that democracy will be said to have had its course. The outlook in some cases such as that of the United States may appear like a two-party system. However, when looked closely, there is an operation of a multi-party system in the background. The Democratic and Republican Parties have been winning the presidential and national legislative seats in the U.S. However, other parties have been operating at regional levels.
Separation of Power
Separation of power is the organizational structuring of a state’s governing authority, powers, and responsibilities to be shared among separate bodies to enhance productivity and curtail dictatorship. It is a democratic concept that helps build trust in the government and confidence in the people. The idea came as a way of checkmating the excesses of single power holding government agents.
In most cases, the separation is between the executive, legislature, and the judiciary. The legislature is primarily responsible for making the laws by initiating and passing bills, as well as carrying out some oversight functions. The executive on the other hand is responsible for implementing the laws and ensuring political stability within the polity. While the judiciary is responsible for adjudications and conflict settlement.
The responsibilities must be shared in this way in order to avoid excessive power residing in the hands of a single arm. This reduces the workload on the government, which enhances effectiveness, and it also allays the fear of misuse of concentrated power. This becomes democratic because it helps in protecting the people from the whims of a single corrupt government.
Separation of power in most modern democracies is tripartite in nature to help reduce autocracy, facilitate the division of labor, and enhance checks and balances. However, there are instances such as some states in the United States of America that practice a bipartite system that assigns power to two branches of government.
The Judiciary is that branch of government that is authoritatively responsible for the adjudication of disputes between individuals, groups, organizations, and even government agencies When there are conflicts and controversies, whether among individuals or between individuals and corporate organizations including government bodies, the judiciary is expected to bring the conflicting parties to justice.
The judiciary is responsible for a country’s legal system and it comprises judges who are regarded as the equitable dispensers of justice and lawyers who stand as representatives of litigants.
In this regard, even the government can be taken to court if they are found to operate outside their job description. And for such to be in full play, the body responsible for settling the existing disputes must be allowed to do so without fear or favor. The judges must not be intimidated or blackmailed in any way in order to be bought.
The question you might want to ask is, why am Ivparticular about only one arm of government? The answer is simple, the executive and legislative arms have their main officials come into power through elections, only the judiciary is appointed by the executive and confirmed by the legislature. Only when this arm of government is allowed to operate without being manipulated, democracy cannot thrive.
The judicial system must be equipped adequately by ensuring the welfare of judges and proper structuring of the courthouses in order to help it function effectively. The welfare of legal representatives must also be ensured. They must be protected from all forms of intimidation from individuals, groups, corporate bodies, or even government officials.
This refers to the quality of acceptance that has been attached to a thing by the people who are directly affected by it, or by people who witness its existence. In this context, the thing we are looking at is the government and the state. Therefore, we can say that a government is said to be legitimate if the citizens confirm that its existence is not problematic for them and if the international community is happy to relate with it.
Legitimacy implies the recognition given to a government and for such a government to be accorded such recognition, it must have sprung up via a democratic process and must have proven to be people-centered. To be regarded as a democracy, every government must be legitimate because it is a major element to prove its acceptability.
Legitimacy is a strong force that must be reckoned with in the sphere of democratic governance. Everyone is interested in what the government is doing. The press is working around the clock to keep tabs on the government, opposition parties are tirelessly mounting pressure on the government to be accountable, and civil society organizations keep making demands for the government to be up and doing. By responding to this set of groups, the government is making efforts to present itself as legitimate.
Popular participation is a process whereby citizens of a particular state or country find interest in taking part in the political and decision-making processes of that state or country. This involves enabling citizens to belong in the processes carried out by the government. The government is expected to create avenues through which citizens will find interest in political processes.
Popular participation of citizens shows a government to be democratic in nature and it suggests that the government is transparent to its citizens. It is the government’s responsibility to figure out ways on how to make sure that its citizens are involved in the decision-making processes. And no right-thinking government should sideline its citizens in its dealings.
Political Apathy is the opposite of popular participation, and it refers to a negative attitude of citizens towards the affairs of government. Political apathy is a sign that a government is not doing well democratically. For example, when people lose confidence in a government, their actions will always contradict the ideas and policies of the government.
A country whose electoral processes have been characterized by manipulations and intimidation is most likely going to have its citizens lose interest in participating in the electoral process. They are likely going to feel like their efforts will only be wasted if they try to decide by the polls who should take up the mantle of political leadership. Such a country will be marked as a country without regard for democratic processes.
Popular participation is a quality that a democratically conscious government must imbibe if it must succeed democratically and politically. Citizens have to show that they are not living under duress or forced to do anything at all.
Checks and Balances
The principle of checks and balances is an extension of the theory of separation of power. The principle believes in the moderation of the use of extreme power by one branch of government. It connotes the reduction of powers to a single arm of government and decentralizing the affairs of the executive. This concept makes for accountability and transparency.
The system was said to have been developed by a renowned French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu who established the Theory of Separation of Power and emphasized the existence of the principle of checks and balances.
Montesquieu was one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Insatiably curious and mordantly funny, he constructed a naturalistic account of the various forms of government, and of the causes that made them what they were and that advanced or constrained their development. He used this account to explain how governments might be preserved from corruption.
He saw despotism, in particular, as a standing danger for any government not already despotic, and argued that it could best be prevented by a system in which different bodies exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America.
ADVANTAGES OF DEMOCRACY
It is important to ask after looking at what democracy is, is it of any benefit? Why do nations decide to practice democracy? Does it favor the people more or does it favor the government officials more? These and many more are questions that may arise in the minds of many inquisitive individuals.
Like it has been mentioned in the former part of this article, democracy appears incredibly blissful from the theoretical perspective, yet, its practice is another entire view in itself. We can therefore say that democracy has its deal of challenges as well as successes. That is why in this section of the article, we want to look at the possible benefits of democracy. They are as follows:
Democracy is a system of government that enables the citizens to hold the government accountable for all that takes place within the country. Accountability of government is what shows that they are responsible and can be relied on by the people. A government that is irresponsible does not deserve the confidence and votes of the people.
A democratically elected government is therefore mandated to ensure that whatever is done within the state should be in accordance with law and backed up by the people’s consent. We cannot have a government that claims to be responsible, yet, it does not let the people in on the decisions it is making for the benefit of the same people it claims to be responsible for.
Since democracy is people-driven and people-centered, the people should be able to know when the government is stepping beyond its bounds and not functioning in the interest of the people. This is a beautiful aspect of democracy that makes a powerful masterpiece in the hands of the people. This makes the government either acceptable by the people or rejected.
A popular saying goes that two heads are better than one. It is true because one person only has a limited perspective of things. When two views are considered, it is said to have a wider scope than when it is only one. This is very much relatable with the value of popular choice in a democracy. Decisions go through scrutiny before a decision is reached. Whether it is the decision of the people or that of the government. The modalities put in place are to ensure that no decision is made by a single authority against the wishes of many individuals.
Democracy makes sure that decisions that are reached are in the interest of the majority of citizens. This is why democracy is centered around the people and their interests. Better still, democracy strengthens the quality of any decision that is made, especially if it is intended to affect the lives of the majority of citizens.
Government By The People
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “democracy is the government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This is because democracy has empowered the people with so much power to determine those in political office, and has equipped them with the capability to be a part of the decision-making processes in their interest.
The idea is about the people’s interests and making sure that they are protected from impositions whether from outside or within the state. That is why it is said that it is a government of the people.
In every democratic system, the major limitation of the powers of the government is the people. The people are to be carried along in any major decision of the government, and the people can either accept or reject any proposition made by the government.
Prevalence of Human Rights
Since democracy is an act of the people, it is expected that the rights and privileges of these people are watched and protected. The people are free to make lawful decisions that they feel are of benefit to them, they are allowed to make their own choice of religion, they can move freely within the state under normal circumstances, and so on. These rights are not to be taken away from citizens except their actions warrant so, and the act of withdrawing such rights must be backed up by law.
According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Human rights are norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to education.
Human rights have received massive international support and have been used to fight numerous autocratic leaders and law enforcement agencies. This is because the basic arguments for the concept are with respect to the fact that all humans are universal, they are inalienable. i.e, they can be without necessarily depending on any laid down laws.
Avoids Monopoly of Power
The taste of power is very sweet, and let go of it needs lots of personal discipline and contentment. This is why democracy is patterned in such a way that there is avoidance of the excesses of holding on to political office for a lifetime when there are many other people who are equally or even more capable of leadership and are waiting in line.
Democracy has periodic elections as one of its main features. This feature is what makes it possible for democracy to curtail the monopoly of power by a few government officials who have the tendencies of enforcing themselves on the citizens. Elections are conducted from time to time in democratic settings. In some countries, the period for one tenure is four years and there is a possibility of contesting for two tenures after which the individual will be no longer qualified.
Democracy Promotes Equality
The marginalization that existed in the past was mainly against women and illiterates, and in some other cases, against people belonging to the lower class in the society. This gap has been bridged in recent times due to the advent of democracy. There has been an increased fight for gender equality around the globe, which has given women more opportunities to be heard. And Vying for political opportunities has been open to all adults who are law-abiding as long as they meet up the required qualifications as stipulated by the law.
Equality is a major impact democracy has made in the various countries where it is being practiced. More voices have been encouraged to speak, and more impactful hands have been encouraged to participate. Equality is one benefit of democracy that shows that democracy is more about the people. It has helped to reduce the fear of being marginalized, irrespective of political inclinations, religious beliefs, gender disposition, and so on