Democracy is a form of government in which sovereignty rests ultimately with the citizens of a political unit. As it was originally practiced in ancient Athens, citizens participated directly in the policymaking process; in its modern form, however, citizens govern themselves indirectly through representatives who are elected to make policy decisions on their behalf.
The word "democracy" derives from the Greek demokratia, which literally means "rule by the people." It is formed by Demos; 'the people' and Kratos - 'rule' or 'power'. It should be noted that "the People" originally meant only the people who "counted": women and slaves, for example, did not count and had no vote. This concept remained to the nineteenth century; it was only in the twentieth that the concept changed so that nearly all adults have to be able to vote for a country to count as a democracy.
For the evolution of democracy in Athens, see the Athens article.
Athens as a democracy held conflicting and sometimes bizarre contradictions that are easily misinterpreted by the modern conception of what a democratic state should possess. In the constitutional democratic tradition, Athens differed on several counts; such as a lack of legal protections of liberties and rights – the citizen body could vote to take away your rights one day and vote to give them back the next. This naturally caused political instability that led to criticism of the model both from its contemporaries and revisionists in the present.
Opinions differ on the exact origins of Athenian democracy. Some attribute the reforms of Solon in 594 BC as laying the fundamental groundwork’s of the democratic evolution. Others point to the legendary King Thesus and his aspirations for Athens. Further, some believe the reforms of Cleisthenes (508-502 BC) played the major role.
In the modern world, constitutional democracy is the natural opposite of Autocracy. The minimal definition in institutional terms of a constitutional democracy is that it should provide for a regularized system of periodic elections with a free choice of candidates, the opportunity to organize competing Political Parties, adult suffrage, decisions by majority vote with minority rights protection, an independent judiciary, constitutional safeguard of basic civil liberties and so called Natural Rights, and the opportunity to change governmental procedures by popular mandate.
Two features of constitutional democracy require emphasis in contrasting it with totalitarianism: A Constitution and the political party. In most modern constitutional democracies there is a constitutional document providing for fixed limitations on the exercise of power. These provisions usually include three major elements: an assignment of different state functions and organisations to different state offices or organs, and the establishment of arrangements for their co-operation; a list of individual rights or liberties that are protected from the exercise of State power; and a statement by the methods of which the constitution may be amended.
With these provisions, a concentration of political power with one person or party is limited, hence the Lockean notion of Limited Power. Certain areas of political and social life become immune to government intervention, without a constitutional amendment, and peaceful change in the political order is made possible.
The political party is the other chief instrument of constitutional democracy, as it is the agency in which the electorate is involved in the exchange and transfer of power. The political parties of constitutional democracy tend to be decentralised, concerned with the integration of diverse talents and interests, and open to public participation. There is usually some competition from two or more parties; some nations have two party systems, where the electorate is split down along racial, ethnic and economic coalitions readily identifiable with their respective political party, others have broader systems, where smaller parties take in sizeable portions of the vote, ensuring coalition governments need to be formed in order to create a functionable government. The political party in a constitutional democracy serves the function of representing a mass electorate in the exercise of power and also a mechanism that allows the peaceful replacement of one set of power holders with another.
Democratization and democratic consolidation
- Sinclair, R. K., Democracy and participation in Athens (Cambridge, 1998)
- See Plato
- The United Kingdom, for example doesn’t have a written constitution protecting liberties and rights like other democracies yet is in every sense of the term, a ‘democracy’
- Methods vary from nation to nation, with a direct vote from the people sufficient in some cases (e.g, [[Ireland) or an overwhelming majority of electoral support in other cases (Such as the U.S. Constitution requiring three quarters of the States to pass a constitutional amendment)
- The exception being regional interest parties, or fringe political movements such as fascism or communism
- Such as in the United States, to a variable extent
- Much of Europe adopts the Proportional Representation system, that tends to favour smaller parties.