Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What is democracy?

I have sometimes wondered as to whether a democracy can actually work, especially in a developing country, but perhaps I should have first posed the question: What is democracy?

It is system of government, as opposed to government by individuals. It also government of the people, by the people themselves.

What does this mean?

It is best illustrated with a simple analogy. I work in finance and have encountered fraud many a time, so much so that my personal philosophy is 'never trust an individual, you can only trust a system'. This is the heart of democracy: the system. Individuals do not, indeed should not matter.

The reliance on the system is result on many centuries of struggle against the tyranny of individual rulers. Why place our faith in fickle, fallible people when we can put our faith in a system? A system of laws.

So what exactly is the system?

The foundation of a democracy is the constitution. This sets out the basic rights that every individual enjoys. This is designed to protect its citizens from abuse. A government is not supposed to go against the constitution.

Democracy is also about self government - the people choose their representatives in free elections held at regular intervals (the rulers, however good or bad are ejected periodically as a check on power). Thus power flows upwards, from the people to the government and the government must be answerable to the people.

The third broad principle on which democracy is based is that power is always limited, no one enjoys unlimited power.

Power is limited in various ways but principally because it is divided or separated, between parliament, the judiciary and the executive.

The executive is the government; the Head of state and the cabinet of ministers. It is they who will set government policy. However the executive is answerable to parliament. Parliament is supposed to act as a check on the executive, to question, which is why some of the losing sides in an election are allowed in parliament. The opposition must lead the questioning of the executive, but properly speaking even ruling party MP's must raise questions in accordance with their conscience. Further, a government must pass laws in order to rule and these laws must be debated and approved by parliament before they are enacted.

In the event some people think the laws or policies of the Government violate the constitution then the citizen has the right to take his complaint to the courts who will rule on the matter.

This is the bare bones of how a democracy works, there is a lot more but this should suffice as an introduction.

Democracy is also about government by the people. Citizens are not supposed to be idle bystanders they are supposed to actually participate in affairs.

The people are free to criticise their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. In turn elected representatives at the national and local levels should listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions.

It follows that individuals must have the right to their own beliefs, and to say and write what they think. No one can tell an individual what to think, believe, and say or not say.

For individuals to be informed and to express their views they depend on mass media. No media can be completely free of bias so there must be free competition for news and information to allow many different viewpoints to emerge. When individuals express their opinions, they should also listen to the views of other people, even people they disagree with. Everyone has a right to be heard.

Government by the people works in part through the media. News in carried in the media and people respond, by writing to the media, by writing to the ministers or authorities concerned, by being interviewed and complaining on the media to convey their issues to others who may be interested.

People should question the decisions of the government, but not reject the government’s authority. No one should denounce a political opponent as evil and illegitimate, just because they have different views.

Democracy is cumbersome, complicated, and irksome for rulers who often find themselves facing a barrage of criticism, sometimes entirely unwarranted, but it probably serves the people better than any other.

Acknowledgment: Some of the material in this post is drawn from here. It is a succinct but comprehensive introduction to the subject, read it for further enlightenment.


santhoshi said...

You have been tagged. Check my post...

Delilah said...

You've been tagged :)


Kirigalpoththa said...


A very comprehensive intro to politics in a very clear cut language!

Thanks for the post!

Jack Point said...


thank you!

Santhoshini, Delilah Aaaagh