Definition, History, Types, Characteristics and Facts of Democracy


Definition, History, Types,  Characteristics and Facts  of Democracy

Definition of Democracy

Democracy is deemed to be the best system of government in the world today. This is so because the system tends to protect the interest of citizens first. Currently, most of the countries of the world (including the world power, USA) practice a democratic system of government.

The term democracy comes from the Greek word for “rule of the people.” The Greek’s idea of democracy was based on the full participation of all people in every aspect of government. The Greek system of democratic government is the model of “pure” or consensus” democracy, though in the case of Greek pure democracy did not last long.

However, the idea of government by the people survived the decline of the Greek city-state to become one of the basic ideals of political thought.

There are two broad categories of scholars on the concept of democracy:

The process and principle democrats. Process scholars see democracy as a way of making decisions, but principle democrats’ argue that democracy has a very important theoretical base (Baradat, 2000). The principle democrats’ states that, although the procedure of democracy is important, according to them it is secondary to the basic intents and objectives of democracy as expressed in democratic theory. For this reason, we will focus in this unit on the principle or theory of democracy.

The principle democrats contend that the basic principle of modern liberal democracy include that the individual is of major importance in the society, that each individual is basically equal to all other individuals, and that each has certain inalienable rights. Central to democracy is also the assumption of the freedom of choice that the individual has from form fear or coercion and any other disabilities. Central to democracy is liberty to make choice and equality of choice. Democracy, according to John Dewey is much more than a form of government or a set of legal arrangement, but should be seen as a way of life that requires faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action, if proper conditions are provided. He argues further that democracy requires faith in the possibility of resolving disputes through un- coerced deliberations. Democracy, according to Dewey, should not be viewed as “something institutional and external” but should been seen as “a way of personal life.”

Democracy not only requires institutional guarantees of rights but also faith in the possibility of resolving disputes through un-coerced deliberation. In other words, un-hindered communication should be put in place in a democratic setting in which there is a “cooperative undertaking”, instead of having one group suppress the other through either subtle or overt violence or through intimidation. Democracy does not impose authority from above but instead relies on the dialogue as the source of authority and the means of choosing among competing alternatives. A democratic system flourishes in a setting where there is unlimited participation of all citizens in a free and rational public debate.

For Emile Durkheim, the basic hallmark of democracy is the citizens’ capacity to participate in the state’s judgment. To him, the state’s legitimacy springs from its collective conscience. In other words, the citizens should be able to contribute to the natural reasoning and deliberations of the society. In Durkheim’s view, if we want to have a viable democracy then we must have a vibrant public sphere where issues of common concern could be debated in a rational manner. Similarly, intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics including differences of race, colour or wealth are treason to the democratic way of life. Despite this seeming agreement by most scholars on its principle, democracy, especially its process, which we shall discuss in the next unit, is, essentially, a largely contested concept. Robert Dahl (1984) sees it as a concept that defies definition in the sense that the way one defines it would betray one’s beliefs, personal outlook, political experience and ideological preference. There are differences for example between the United States’ and the Soviet Union’s conception of democracy. A major difference between USA and the former Soviet Union is that US emphasizes political freedom as basic to democracy while USSR focuses on economic rights and its leaders are even prepared to suppress or deny individual rights for the sake of the survival of the system. On the other hand, democracy in the USA does not place high premium on economic needs, in spite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program. In retrospect, one can argue that that one of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed is that the system could no longer fulfill the basic economic needs of its people despite the lid the system placed on human (political) rights. This is why Baradat (2000:66) argued that the Soviet Union and the United States differed as to which procedures best defines democracy”.


History of Democracy 

Archeological evidence suggests that disorganized practices at least resembling democracy existed in some parts of the world during prehistoric times, However, the concept of democracy as a form of populist civic engagement emerged  during the 5th century BCE in the form of the political system used in some of the city- state  of ancient Greece, most notably Athens. At that time, and for the next several centuries, tribes or city-states remained small enough that if democracy was practiced at all, it took the form of direct democracy. As city-states grew into larger, more heavily populated sovereign nation-states or countries, direct democracy became unwieldy and slowly gave way to representative democracy. This massive change necessitated an entirely new set of political institution such as legislatures, parliaments, and political parties all designed according to the size and cultural character of the city or country to be governed.

Until the 17th century, most legislatures consisted only of the entire body of citizens, as in Greece, or representatives selected from among a tiny oligarchy or an elite hereditary aristocracy. This began to change during the English civil wars from 1642 to 1651 when members of the radical puritan reformation movement demanded expanded representation in Parliament and the universal right to vote for all male citizens. By the middle 1700s, as the power of the British Parliament grew, the first political parties the Whigs and Tories emerged. It soon became obvious that laws could not be passed or taxes levied without the support of the Whig or Tory party representatives in Parliament.

While the developments in the British Parliament showed the feasibility of a representative form of government, the first truly representative democracies emerged during the 1780s in the British colonies of North America and took its modern form with the formal adoption of the Constitution of the United States of America on March 4, 1789.

Types of Democracy

1. Direct Democracy: This is where all the citizens attend the Assembly and take part in the decision making process, in order to govern the state or the society. This type of democracy was practiced in ancient small Greek City. It was also parcticed in Nigeria during the Igbo pre-colonial administration.

2. Indirect Democracy: In this system of democracy, the citizens the citizens through election selected those who will represent and govern the state on their behalf. This is opposed to the direct democracy where everyone is actively participating in the governance of the day. This type of democracy replaced the direct democracy in modern states as it is impossible for everyone to participate due to the large number of people.

Types of Direct Democracy

There are two schools of thought when it comes to a direct democracy.

1.   Participatory Democracy

2.   Deliberative Democracy

1. Participatory Democracy:  Is one where the people use initiative and referendums to make a contribution to their government. This allows every person to make a meaningful contribution, like what you find in Switzerland.

2. Deliberative Democracy: Another direct democracy theory is the deliberative school of thought. In this theory, citizens would deliberate government policies and reforms among themselves to generate the best policies and laws for everyone.


Characteristics of Democracy

Below are the key characteristics of democracy:

1. Existence of the Constitution

2. Popular participation in politics

3. Legitimacy

4. Periodic election

5. Separation of power

6. Checks and balances

7. Existence of political parties

8. Equality before the law

9. Fundamental human rights


1. Existence of the Constitution: In every democratic nation, there is usually the existence of a constitution which is either written or written. A constitution can simply be defined as the fundamental laws or rules which guides a state or society. It establishes the institutions of the government such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary and defines their powers. The constitution also contains the rights and duties of the citizens and the government. It is imperative to note that there are two types of institutions namely: Formal and informal institutions. Formal instructions are those which discharge formal functions such as the three arms of the government. On the other hand, infomal institutions are those which discharge informal responsibilities such as the political parties and the press. In a democratic society, the constitution usually states how these institutions functions.

2. Popular participation in politics: One the most important features of democracy is popular participation in politics. From the definition of democracy explained above, it is clear that any system which does not encourage people to participate in the political decision making of the government is not democratic. Consequently, popular participation is not just a feature of democracy. It is an essential part of the system. People have to participate in politics either directly or through a representative which is legitimately recognized by them.

Take for instance, in Nigeria (a federal system), people at the local level, who cannot actively participate in politics at the central level, are allowed to elect senators who represent their opinions at the central level. No doubt, popular participation in politics is one of the features of democracy that cannot be jettisoned.

3. Legitimacy: When I was in secondary school, I was taught that Legitimacy is the recognition of the people of a state, the right of their leaders to govern. This definition of Legitimacy is actually very short and understandable. Oxford dictionary defines democracy as when there is conformity to the law or to rules. I personally agree with the definition of Legitimacy in political science which Wikipedia says is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime. I explained earlier that in a democratic state, the people are allowed to select who to govern them. This is what is known as Legitimacy. Here, the people will unanimously agree on who will administer their political affairs. This is usually done by voting and it is recognized by the law which the people have consented to. Apparently, this is why Abraham Lincoln said that democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. This postulates that in a democratic state the people are very key.

4. Periodic election: Since the people are the supreme in a democratic state, there is usually a fixed tenure for conducting elections. This is to make sure that the political powers of the state are not concentrated in a single hand. In the United States of America for instance, the president of the United States is elected indirectly to a four-year term, with a term limit of two terms. It is pertinent to note that periodic elections is a very essential feature of democracy because, where there is one particular leader administering the affairs of a state for eternity, that state cannot be said to be a democratic state. The people must be allowed to choose and change their leaders because they are supreme.

5. Separation of power: Separation of power is a political concept by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, an 18th century French social and political philosopher. It means that the political powers of a state should not be concentrated in one single hand. It should rather be separated and sheared to avoid dictatorship. Here, the political powers of the state are shared between the arms of government (That is, the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary). The Legislature makes the law of the state. The executive implements the law and the judiciary interprets the law. These powers are separated such that, there will be no interference in their activities. Their arms of government are only allowed to check the activities of each other to ensure that they all conform to the law of the state which the people agree with.

6. Checks and balances: The theory check and balances is an extension of the theory of separation of powers. It was propounded by Montesquieu in his book titled “the spirit of the Laws”  “. According to research, Montesquieu’s theory of checks and balances is a principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power. In that same light, checks and balances in a democratic state, ensures that the different arms of Government checks the actives of each other. Take for instance, if the legislature makes a law that it is not supposed, or prohibited from making, the judiciary can declare such law to be null and void. It should be noted that for the principle of Checks and balances to be effective, there is need to give each arm autonomy to act on their own but not outside what is provided in the law. Financial autonomy is also very important to ensure the effectiveness of checks and balances in a democratic government. No doubt, it is a very important feature of democracy.

7. Existence of political parties: A political party is a union of likeminded people who come together to take over power. In a democratic state, there should be political parties. Not just one political party but two or more. This is to ensure that the masses have different choices to choose from. A one party state cannot be said to be a democratic state because there is just one political party in the state. So the people do not really have any option. Democracy postulates that the people are Supreme and as such, they have the power to decide who will administer their political affairs. Conversely, a state where there is no political party or just one political party or where the people are not allowed to select anybody they want as leader, is not a democratic state.

8. Equality before the law: In a true democratic state, there is equity before the law. This form of government does no encourage the idea that some class of citizens should or should not be punished for their actions. Even the legitimate leaders in a democratic state are forced to face the law during or after their service of the nation. Equality is a key feature of democracy because it postulates that citizens have the same rights to vote and to be voted for. This means that all votes casted in a democratic state during election is valid, notwithstanding wealth or position of the person who casted the vote. This is exactly what is called equality.

9. Fundamental human rights: Fundamental human rights are also very important features of a democratic state. They are those inalienable and immutable rights that are given to a member of a state as soon as he/she is born. These rights help to protect the citizens of that state from molestations by dictators. This is why it is important that the Fundamental human rights of people in a democratic state be entrenched in the constitution of every state.

8. Equality before the law: In a true democratic state, there is equity before the law. This form of government does no encourage the idea that some class of citizens should or should not be punished for their actions. Even the legitimate leaders in a democratic state are forced to face the law during or after their service of the nation.

Equality is a key feature of democracy because it postulates that citizens have the same rights to vote and to be voted for. This means that all votes casted in a democratic state during election is valid, notwithstanding wealth or position of the person who casted the vote. This is exactly what is called equality.

9. Fundamental human rights: Fundamental human rights are also very important features of a democratic state. They are those inalienable and immutable rights that are given to a member of a state as soon as he/she is born. These rights help to protect the citizens of that state from molestations by dictators. This is why it is important that the Fundamental human rights of people in a democratic state be entrenched in the constitution of every state. There are other fundamental human rights that also help to ensure effective practice of democracy. The freedom of the press is one of them. Evidently, press freedom is one of the essential pillars of a democratic state. It is also one of the main features of democracy.

Elements of Democracy

Democracy is defined as a “form of government in which the common people hold political power.” This means common people can either become country leaders through the electoral process or elect leaders who represent their core values and beliefs. In terms of the number of democratic countries in the world, as of 2018, there were 99 democracies globally.

Since there are different types of democracies, there are different criteria for each type. Democracy is essentially the opposite of a dictatorship. A democracy of any kind generally includes four elements:

·            Elections system for choosing government type and officials

·            Human rights protection for all

·            Citizens actively participating in civics and politics

·            Laws apply equally to all citizens

Countries of the World with Best Practice of Democracy

While worldwide organizations like the United Nations (UN) do not endorse any one type of government as the best, they do promote democracy because it provides greater participation, equality, security, and human development for people. According to the scores given by the Democracy Index in 2019, these countries represent the best democratic governments in the world. All of them have a full democracy:

1. Norway - 9.87

2. Iceland - 9.58

3. Sweden - 9.39

4. New Zealand - 9.26

5. Finland - 9.25


The process of Democracy

The popular definition of democracy offered by Abraham Lincoln gives the impression that all the citizens have the opportunities of participating in government. However, this is no longer possible in the modern world because of the size of sovereign states today. Since the world has advanced beyond the Greek city-states participatory democracy is no longer practicable, hence the necessity for indirect or representative democracy. Through this process, given that all necessary conditions are in place, it is quite possible to achieve the ideals of democracy. Political power comes from the people and that a government is only legally constituted and run when the people gives their consent. The democratic process is therefore the institutional arrangements for arriving at political decisions in which individual acquires and retain the power to rule by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.

The success of any democratic political system is largely, determined by the willingness on the part of the political actors to comply with the rules of the game. A democratic political system will therefore be stable if the process of leadership recruitment is legitimate and majority of the citizens accept the electoral system as fair and just. Presently, the United States and most European countries have succeeded in meeting most conditions for the sustenance of democracy, while most third world countries are still struggling to lay the foundation or rudiments, in order to begin the democratic journey. Democracy goes beyond mere putting in place political structures and institutions, but also involves meaningful participation of the peoples in the affairs of the state. The key words therefore are participation, transparency and accountability.

As aptly argued by Samuel P. Huntington (Huntington, 1991), democracy has advanced in waves since the early nineteenth Century, with each wave giving way to partial reversals followed by new gains. The current wave, which is the third one, according to him, commenced in the mid-seventies. Thus, contemporary views on democracy see it as the exercise of state power with the consent of the people either directly or indirectly through their elected representatives. Within democratic governance there is provision for state institutions to express the will of the state and ultimately for the supremacy of that expression on all basic questions of socioeconomic direction and policy. Under democratic governance, factors such as economic equality, fraternal feeling and political liberty within a defined territory are indispensable pre-requisites.

The institutional expression within democratic governance in contemporary times are:

1.    Equal rights for all normal adults to vote and to stand as candidates for election.

2.   Periodic elections.

3.    Equal eligibility for executive and judicial offices (provided the essential qualifications for the performance of the assigned duties are satisfied)

4.    Freedom of speech.

5.   Publication and association (Appadoria, 2004).

These rights in themselves provide opportunities for the entire citizenry to participate in choosing their rulers and in deciding the general lines of their policy via their political manifestos presented before elections. However, a number of factors, most significant of which are the social environment, economic resource of the citizens and their natural endowment decide the extent to which these essential democratic sine qua non rights can be met.

Nonetheless, in most democratic states in spite of their imperfections, even the poor are given minimal equality of voting during elections since votes are counted, not weighed, regardless of the social or economic status of the voters. Among such rights that can promote the cause of democracy are freedoms of speech, press and association.

These rights are integral to democratic governance because they make possible free discussion and the continuous participation of the citizenry in government, overtime and not only during the time of general elections. Free discussion is necessary because democratic governance is based on the belief in the value of individual personality. This implies the obligation to respect the other man, to listen to his views and to take into account his point of argument. In addition, the process of law making should allow full scope for the consideration of different and opposing viewpoints. Those who are inevitably affected by a law must be content that their case has been properly heard in a properly constituted court of law in the land (Egbewole; 2008). This makes the ‘Rule of Law’ a cardinal element of democracy (Dicey 1963). Equality before the law, impartiality in the dispensation of justice and periodic elections are also important in promoting hitch-free democratic process. There is also the possibility of an alternative government in democratic governance. This is in sharp contrast to a situation where power is conferred permanently, or where people do not feel free or safe to discuss or vote according to the dictates of their conscience. Where this is the case then democracy cannot be said to exist even if the people continue to enjoy the other political rights enumerated above.

Finally, democratic governance requires proper organization and dynamic leadership. Political parties carry out organization within democratic governance. Despite their limitations or weaknesses, political parties are indispensable to the successful operation of a democratic society (Bello-imam, 2002). Little wonder political parties are regarded as the fulcrum of democracy.

Lastly, we must point out that it is not possible to isolate the principle of democracy from its process because one needs to reconcile the two in such a way that a state should use the right method or process to achieve the objectives of democracy.

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