Representative Democracy – Definition, Features, History & Examples
Definition of Democracy
The most widely-known definition of Representative Democracy is the one articulated by the former American President, Abraham Lincoln. He described democracy as government by the people, of the people, and for the people.
The most feasible way of attaining democracy in modern times is through representative government. However, there are some limitations, which may reduce the ability of the electorate to conclude their representatives.
Political parties, Pressure Groups and Mass Media are some of the instruments that limit the interest and ability to participate directly in the governance by the people. Every state practicing democracy is expected to exhibit equality and liberty.
What is Representative Democracy?
This is the government formed through the people’s representatives.
In fact this form of democracy is the most common today. The representatives that are elected by the electorate (people, citizens) take decisions on behalf of the larger populace.
Nigeria, for example, practice indirect democracy because it often elect one representative either to the National or state Houses of Assembly to make laws on its behalf.
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.
However, 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.
Historical Development of Representative Democracy
Representative democracy had 16th century beginning and took well into the 20th century to consolidate. The library democracy is the product of the struggle between bourgeoisie and land owners.
It began when the bourgeoisie insisted that there would be no taxation without representation. That is, the continued payment of taxes to the land owners would depend on the representation of the people in government.
The full consolidation of liberal democracy, however, came through the struggle of the labour movement during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the struggle was as much for extending the franchise as it was for union rights.
The other key struggle, on a gender basis, was to gain votes for women. It would be safe to say that the new capitalist class would not have granted universal suffrage and broad representation if they were not pressurized.
The important of all these is that democracy cannot be achieved on a platter of gold. The people in government are not necessary angels and more often than not, they have to be pushed to do the right thing.
Features of Representative Democracy
The features of democracy may also be regarded as the conditions for democracy. They include the following;
#1. Existence of Social Contract
The leadership of the rulers was based on a contract with the governed, imply that the people should be able to delegate to the presentation to ensure that their wishes were carried out. The role of the representative is that of the watchdog who ensures that the interests of the people are protected by the government.
#2. Popular Representation
The representative must be popularly elected. That is, every qualified citizens should be allowed to participate in the election of his representative.
#3. Sovereignty of the People
The people are the final authority in a liberal democratic state. In short, a ruler cannot be more powerful than the people who elected him.
#4. Equality of Participation
There must be universal suffrage in a democracy. That is, democracy is based on one man one vote. But equality in suffrage is meaningless unless it is accompanied by the liberty to exercise a genuine choice by secret ballot among candidates or policies.
#5. Rule of Law
The rule of law is another feature of democracy. With its emphasis on the supremacy of the law and equality before the law, the rule of law is both a source of authority and a basis for human rights, the element which still make library democracy superior to any other authoritarian regime. But the application of the rule of law must be consistent, reliable and just if it is to be meaningful and relevant.
The actions of a democratic government must adhere strictly to the provisions of the constitution. In order to protect the liberty of the citizens, the constitution must specify the rights and duties of the citizens and the limit on the exercise of government powers.
But good constitution alone is not sufficient to ensure democratic government. There must be an appropriate underlying political culture.
#7. Respect For Individual Rights
In a genuine democracy, the ordinary citizens enjoy certain fundamental rights such as the right to life, freedom of speech and freedom of association. To safeguard the enjoyment of these rights, it is important to limit the powers of government.
Thus, in a democracy, a lot of value is placed on the individual human worth. The individual must be free to order his own life for his own purposes and should not be regarded as a mere part of a whole.
The basic idea of democracy is that the individual is an end in himself and that government is an instrument for achieving the fullest development for all individuals. Freedom, however, implies responsibility.
#8. Protection of Minority Interests
In a democracy, the majority must have its way while the minority must have its say. The interests of the minority of class, wealth, tribe, race and religion should be adequately protected.
#9. Independence of the Judiciary
Another feature of democracy is the independence of the judiciary. The judiciary must be independent of both the executive and the legislature if its to dispense justice and settle disputes without fear or favour. To ensure the independence of the judiciary, judges should be appointed on merit and should have security of tenure. But independence goes with responsibility. Judicial officers have to perform their duties duties with probity and should be above board.
#10. Compromise and Peaceful Resolution of Conflicts
Democracy is based on the principle of give-and-take and it frowns up at the winner-takes-all attitude which is common in developing countries.
#11. Existence of Political Parties and Pressure Groups
There are usually more than one political party in a liberal democracy and pressure groups are allowed to operate freely. You cannot talk of democracy without political parties and pressure groups.
#12. Representation of Diverse Interests
A key ingredient of democracy is the plurality of points of access, which it provides. This not only helps to cope with the demands which come from several sources by permitting a wider range of aggregation of demands into policy form but also makes it possible for more interests to actually get something, which is the real meaning of representation.
In other words, it is much more possible for diverse interests to be accommodated under a democratic government than, say, under a military regime. For example, an elected governor or legislature has a respond in one way or the other to different demands from his constituency for employment, scholarship and financial assistance.
If he ignores the people who elected him, they may not return him to power at the next election. The elected representative is therefore accountable to his constituency.
On the other hand, a military governor is accountable primarily to the Head of State or the person who appointed him. He is not obliged to satisfy the needs of the people.
#13. Equality of Social and Economic Opportunities
Democracy is likely to succeed in a country where there is equal access to social and economic opportunities. Poverty is a threat to democracy anywhere. As such, democracy should include the right to work, the right to basic education and the right to health.