Difference Between Direct and Indirect Democracy

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direct and indirect democracy

What are Direct and Indirect Democracy?

Democracy is a type of government system in which the decision-making power rests with the people, as the only sovereign and autonomous will to obey on the part of the public powers. Power is distributed among various institutions that allow citizens to express and exercise collective will, usually including elections or referendums.

The difference between the different types of democracy depends on the way in which that will is expressed and exercised. In direct democracy, citizens are consulted for all decisions. In the indirect, the citizens only elect representatives who will then make the decisions. Democracy, mixed, aspires to a balance between the two tendencies.

Origin of Democracy

Roman democracy always oscillated between imperial monarchies and parliamentary republics.

Democracy as a system emerged in the city-states of Ancient Greece (between 1200 BC and 146 BC).

It was a system of political and social organization that gave equal vote to Greek males of legal age.

These citizens had to participate in public decision-making through a system of different assemblies.

It should be noted that women, foreigners, and obviously slaves were excluded from this system, since none were considered “citizens.”

Democracy was inherited by the Roman Republic, which always oscillated between imperial monarchies and parliamentary republics. Later, democracy resurfaced in the West after the fall of absolutism and the Old Regime, after the French Revolution and the end of the feudal society that had reigned during the Middle Ages.

Since then, democracy has spread to most countries. Today, liberal capitalist democracy is the form that democratic governments often take.

Direct and Indirect Participation

The guiding principle of democracy is that the people are the possessors of the sovereignty of a nation, that is, they are the only ones who can make decisions. And for this, they must participate politically, expressing their will through different mechanisms, which are classified as direct and indirect.

  • Direct Democracy: those in which the masses are consulted directly, and the majority express their will by voting. As in referendums.
  • Indirect Democracy: those in which the will of the majority is expressed in the election of a series of political representatives, who will then hold public office and make decisions on behalf of the people who elected them.

Differences Between Indirect Democracy and Direct Democracy

Athenian democracy
Direct democracy follows the Athenian model.
  • Direct Democracy: It obeys the Athenian model, that is, the democracy that existed in Ancient Athens. It is based on direct, face-to-face consultation and involvement of citizens in decision-making.
  • Indirect Democracy: Delegates the will of the majorities to a series of representatives elected by vote. It is these representatives who, during a stipulated period of time, make the decisions that they consider pertinent for the benefit of their clients.

Similarities Between Direct and Indirect Democracy

Although they differ in their way of expressing the popular will, both types of democracy are subject to it, and to respect for the decision of the majorities. In addition, they agree on the essential considerations for a real democracy, such as equality of rights, equity before the law and the principle of self-determination of nations.

Semi-direct Democracy

direct and indirect democracy Brexit referendum
A referendum defined the United Kingdom‘s exit from the European Union.

Also called mixed democracy, it is a type of democracy that tries to reconcile the benefits of direct and indirect democracy. On the one hand, it relies on the free choice of political representatives who exercise sovereignty on behalf of the people.

On the other hand, citizens are reserved the power to control or influence the decisions of the political leadership. This is done through figures of direct participation such as the binding referendum, the popular legislative initiative, the revocation of the mandate, the plebiscites and public consultations.

Merits and Demerits of Direct Democracy

Direct democracy has the advantage of being much more faithful to the will of the community, since it is itself that decides, manifests itself and operates public policies. The high level of citizen involvement requires a group with political awareness and committed to public betterment.

However, for those same reasons, direct democracy can be slow and costly to make and execute its decisions. The organization of constant referendums supposes a recurrent level of work and expense. Participation in assemblies and councils means that citizens must dedicate part of their time to attending to States affairs.

Merits and Demerits of Indirect Democracy

The withdrawal from decision-making enables corruption.

Representative democracy favors operability and pragmatism, considering much more viable the discussion between a finite number of political representatives in an assembly transmitted to the public (which has no direct voice in it). By delegating sovereignty, decisions are made more effectively.

However, the distancing from decision-making enables corruption and the use of public mechanisms for private gain. This is because political representatives constitute a political class in itself, enjoying economic and social benefits that are not shared with their constituents.

On the other hand, at the cultural level there is a risk of passivizing the population. This means that the idea that politics does not concern them or is the decision of others proliferates.

Merits and Demerits of Mixed-Direct Democracy

Mixed democracy can reconcile the closeness between the people and the exercise of the power of direct democracy, with pragmatism and the representative dynamics of the indirect one. It can be considered a more balanced type of democracy, which tries to take the best of both systems.

However, its dilemmas lie precisely in maintaining this balance, since it faces two political forces: that of the organized majorities and those of the politicians that represent it. The will of the masses can come to impose itself on the institutions, since they are enabled to exercise control without getting directly involved.

Direct Democracy

A modern example of direct democracy is that of Switzerland.

Direct democracy was applied in Greco-Roman antiquity, first in Athens, Sparta, and other city-states, and then within the Roman Republic. The only similar modern case is that of Switzerland, in two of its cantons or provinces, organized socio-politically around popular assemblies.

In these towns, once a year the citizens of these cantons meet to vote on laws, budgets and constitutional reforms. In the rest of the cantons the system was eliminated for reasons of practicality.

Indirect and Semi-Direct Democracy

Indirect democracy is the majority in the West, especially in European nations (such as Germany, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Belgium, Spain, etc.) and in American nations (such as the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, etc.).

However, in many of them there are mechanisms of semi-direct democracy. For example, Argentina has the possibility of including popular initiatives in the treatment of laws. In addition, countries such as Switzerland, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia have promoted the revocation of mandates, with Ecuador being the most successful, with 21 mandates revoked.

Indirect democracy countries are usually divided into republics and parliamentary monarchies. In both cases, power is exercised through the election of political representatives for the public powers (generally legislative and executive).

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