Democracy: Definition, Features, Types, Pros & Cons

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What Is Democracy? – Definition, Types, Significance & Features

Democracy – Democratic System of Government

Meaning of Democracy

Democracy means different things to different people. A former American president, Abraham Lincoln from 1861 to 1865 give democracy its arguably most popular meaning when he defined it as:

government of the people, by the people, and for the people“.

Although, a large number of government and people tend to be in love with this classical definition of democracy, yet many governments are neither by the people nor for the people.

Nevertheless, the definition emphasises that satisfaction of the interest of the people is at the heart of politics. And this is precisely why the term ‘people’ was mentioned three times in the definition.

And yet the same way, Robert Dahl 1971 define democracy as a political system in which the opportunity to participate in decisions is widely shared among all the citizens. This implies that democracy is based on the will of the people and entails the active involvement of the people in choosing their leaders.

But the meaning of democracy has to be traced to the Greek City-States where democracy was said to have originated. In fact, the term “democracy” is derived from two Greek words, namely, ‘demos’ which means ‘people’ and ‘kratos’ which refers to ‘rule’.

Democracy therefore literally means people’s rule or rule by the people. It is a political system in which the people are taking, just as the consumer is the king in a free market.

In modern times, advocate of democracy and the Western Nations such as United States, Britain, France, argue rather strangely that democracy cannot exist without capitalism, these countries and their allies insist that the establishment of a democratic system of government is a precondition for recognition as a legitimate member of the international community.

On the other hand, socialists and communists contend that the kind of democracy been practiced by western countries, and which is been imposed on developing countries, is a sham as liberal democracy is simply hold by a few.

History of Democracy

The origin and history of democracy is located in Ancient Greece, specifically in Athens. But it was a very different system from the current one, since only free men participated in the decisions and those who were not foreigners. Only these were considered citizens, excluding women, slaves and those who were not Athenians.

Athenian democracy was established in the 6th century BC. It was also characterized by the direct participation of citizens through an assembly from which decisions were made. In other words, it was not a representative system like the one we have now in parliaments.

The models of government in democracy have undergone an evolution, to the extent that the concept of citizenship has developed and totalitarianisms have progressively diminished on the global map.

The foregoing is observable in the way in which the democratic spectrum has progressively included new social nuclei. This, from the concept of powerful citizens and landowners to that of new  bourgeoisie, expanding the scope of income necessary for voting as history and their societies progressed.

We must emphasize that another turning point in the history of democracy were the revolutions that developed from the 18th century in Europe. These brought as a consequence the fall of the absolutist regimes that concentrated power in the figure of the monarch.

Perhaps the best known reference is the French Revolution of 1789, but there is also the antecedent of the English revolution of the seventeenth century that resulted in the limitation of the king’s powers.

Democracy in the Contemporary Context

The emergence of  national and popular sovereignties pushed, after the Enlightenment in the 18th century, to the expansion and depth of democracy in most societies, especially in the West.

We must remember that the illustration was an intellectual movement based on reason where pre-established paradigms began to be questioned. Thus, ideas arose that were revolutionary then, such as that there should not be people who by inheritance have the right to lead a nation.

Since the last decades, with the incipient leading role of women in the configuration of modern societies and their democracies, universal suffrage has been achieved.

In this sense, by concept democracy is positioned against totalitarian models such as fascist or communist dictatorships, as well as other absolute forms of power such as autocracy.

However, we must take into account that democracies can face threats such as populism. Thus, there may be leaders who come to government via elections, but then take actions to perpetuate themselves in power with the endorsement of the people, and / or through a machinery that allows them to control democratic institutions and all the powers of the State.

Types of Democracy

There are two main types of democracy. We have direct democracy and representative or liberal democracy.

Direct or pure democracy involves the participation of all the citizens of a state in decision-making. This was the type of democracy practiced in the Greek City States.

This form of democracy is not possible in large and heterogeneous modern states like Nigeria. As such, some form of representation is necessary.

  • Indirect or Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy, qualified adult citizens elect their representatives who in turn are expected to act on behalf of the people. The people/electorate have the power to dismiss or recall the elected officials if they fail to act in the interest of the people who elected them.

There are two basic components of representative democracy. The first is that sovereignty belongs to the people and government is therefore responsible to the people. Second, the will/interest of the majority is more important than the way of the minority. But while the majority must have its way, the minorities should also have its say.

Representative or indirect democracy is the common form of government in modern states, including the United States of America, Britain, France, Canada, India and Nigeria.

  • Semi-Direct Democracy

It combines the two previous systems because, although the people elect their representatives, they have the right to decide on certain matters. This, through mechanisms such as a referendum or a plebiscite.

  • Parliamentary Democracy

Citizens elect their representatives in the Legislative Power and it is these who appoint the head of government. That is, unlike indirect democracy, the people give up their right to choose who will lead the Executive Power.

  • Partial Democracy

Although there may be freedom of expression and elections, citizens have limited access to information about the actions of their leaders.

  • Liberal Democracy

This category usually falls within any democracy where there is a constitution and the rights and freedoms of citizens are respected. In addition, the alternation of power is guaranteed.

Features of Democracy

The features of democracy may also be regarded as the pre-conditions for democracy. They include the following;

  • Existence of social contract
  • Popular representation
  • Sovereignty of the people
  • Quality of participation
  • Rule of law
  • Constitutionalism
  • Respect for individual rights
  • Protection of minority interest
  • Independence of the judiciary
  • Compromise and peaceful resolution of conflicts
  • Existence of political parties and pressure groups
  • Representation of diverse Interests
  • Equality of social and economic opportunities

Significance of Pre-Conditions of Democracy

The value attached to each of these factors may vary from country to country. In the case of United States of America, Alexis de Tocquiville , in his book, Democracy in America (1835 – 1840) listed a number of factors, which tend to maintain American democracy. They include: 

  1. The constitutional structure.
  2. Absence of a large military establishments.
  3. Equality of social and economic conditions.
  4. A prosperous agricultural economy.
  5. The notes, customs and religious beliefs of Americans.

Tocquiville’s argument is that democracy has thrived in the United States because it had a highly democratic constitution, which is reinforced by social and economic institutions.

Contrary to these claims, however no state can claim to be fully democratic. For example, no state has fully abolished poverty or fully enforced the criminal code. Notwithstanding, many countries are on the democratic party and have made good success of it.

Justification for Democracy

Let us examine some of the reasons why many citizens and governments of the world prefer democracy to other forms of government. The reasons include the following:

  • It helps to safeguard the fundamental human rights.
  • It leads to the emergence of political parties which create the avenue for majority rule.
  • The election that is periodically conducted to elect representatives’ gives the people power of choice.
  • The existence of political parties in a democratic setting makes the change of government less cumbersome.
  • Because of the power of choice in democracy, it promotes equality of all citizens.

Merits and Demerits of Democracy – Democratic System

Among the advantages of democracy, we can highlight:

  • Lets hear the voice of all citizens. They participate in decision-making, either directly, for example, through a referendum, or indirectly, voting for their representatives in the Legislative, for example.
  • Minorities can achieve representation and protection.
  • Public debate on topics of interest to the country is allowed.
  • There are counterweights between the different powers of the State, avoiding that the powers are concentrated in a single person or political party.
  • It allows citizens to express their disagreement with the opinion of their rulers.

Likewise, democracy shows some disadvantages:

  • Little speed in making some decisions if the citizens or their representatives cannot reach an agreement.
  • In certain circumstances, the majority can impose their opinions, leaving minorities aside.
  • The fittest citizens are not always elected as rulers.
  • Political contests can generate polarization, that is, people will tend to support opposing sides. This, despite the fact that it can be assumed that most people do not have extreme positions.
  • Power groups, or certain people in particular, can use politics for their own benefit. In other words, corruption can be generated.

Examples of Democracy

We have mentioned some examples of democracy, as in Ancient Greece. Another example could be the United States, which does not elect the president directly, but the Parliament.

Likewise, we have countries where there is a monarchy, but it does not exercise effective power. Thus, the citizens democratically elect a Parliament which, in turn, appoints a head of government. Example: United Kingdom.

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