If a friend were to ask you to define democracy, you could probably muster up a fairly good response, talking about having elections where the people vote and choose those they want to be in government. And that would be a perfectly fine answer. But then your friend, who’s in quite a curious mood, asks where the line is – what needs to be there to make it a democracy, without which it’s something else?
In fact, there are certain elements that must exist in order for a democracy to be a democracy. From free and fair elections to human rights to basic values like equality and accountability, here are 14 things that must be present in order to have a strong and stable democracy.
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What are the 14 principles of democracy?
1. Participation of citizens
By its very definition, democracy allows the people a voice in charting the course of their government and their future. In direct democracies, this can mean citizens vote directly on the laws they live under. In representative democracy, it means they get to choose who represents them and have a free voice to express their opinions and desires. In either case, citizen participation is the foundation that makes democracy strong.
Participation is not just voting on election day, although this is surely its most notable form. But equally important are public debate, town meetings, and peaceful protests, among other things. Each of these are forms of participation that help make people informed when it does come time to mark a ballot. Citizens’ groups and civil society help make sure people have the ability to do all of these things and should be supported to ensure greatest participation.
It is not only important but necessary that all people are treated equally in a democracy. This means that they are not discriminated against because of their ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation. It also means that people have equal access to the free enjoyment of their rights – for example, equal access to the voting booth. And when it does come time to vote, it means that every vote counts the same – your vote is just as valuable and counts just as much as the wealthiest or most powerful person in your country. That’s the most fundamental element of equality in a democracy.
People entrust powers to those they elect, and they are tasked to use those powers to enrich their communities. Politicians are accountable to the people, must act consistent with their will, and have a duty not abuse their power to enrich themselves and their friends. When authoritarian governments take control of the newspapers and news channels, when they hamstring and harass civil society groups, it becomes all too easy to keep corruption and abuses of power out of the public eye, and this makes it harder for the people to hold the government accountable on election day.
In order to make informed choices at the ballot box, voters have to know the score. They have to know if their government is making good decisions or its policies aren’t working, if it's following the rules or plundering public money. Transparency means government actions are clear to the people, as are the results and outcomes. Information of the government should, with few exceptions, be available to the public upon request, journalists and people alike should be able to ask their politicians questions, and groups that work on transparency should be free to operate.
5. Political tolerance
Although majority rule is at the heart of democracy, this does not mean that the minority is forgotten. In a true democracy, the rights of all citizens are equal and must be respected regardless of who’s in power. And even though their views may not have carried election day, they still have the right to continue to share those views to other citizens and the government. And this is healthy, if not necessary. Democracy thrives on openness and richness of thought; by suppressing the rights and freedoms of the minority, the majority holds itself back.
6. Multi-party system
Citizens must have a choice on election day. That means that more than a single political party is able to freely participate in an election campaign and be an option for the people. And when opposition parties do win, there is a transfer of power and renewed public debate on how to steer the country forward. If there’s just a single party then it’s most probably a dictatorship, although some countries have managed to develop democratic systems under the rule of a single party.
7. Control over the abuse of power
Democracy can only survive if everyone buys in – the citizens through their support on voting day and all other times of year, and politicians by playing by the rules and working to improve the lives of everyone. Abuse of power occurs when a government decides it is above the law, when politicians believe a different set of rules apply to them, when the levers of the state are moved to favor only a certain segment of society at the expense of others, or when public money is funneled into accounts of corrupt leaders and their friends. We see this often in the world’s “democracies” and increasingly so in Europe too.
There are ways to insulate democracy from such abuse, but there is no way to protect it completely. Diffusing powers across different branches of government helps to hold them all to account, for example. Protecting free and fair elections are also important. This includes protecting independent media so citizens can get good information in the lead up to voting, and means protecting election laws to make sure the process is fair.
8. Freedom of economy
In a democracy, a person should be able to decide what they want to do with their life. As long as they follow the rules, it’s not the government’s place to tell them what they must study or what job they must take or what they must grow. Economic freedom is important in order to develop strong communities and strong national economies.
9. Bill of rights
Another way to protect the people from abuse of power by the government is through a bill of rights. This is a list of the rights and freedoms people have, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. As a bill, the document is a part of law, and many countries have enshrined it into their constitution. So when someone thinks their government is violating their rights, they can turn to the courts for help.
10. Human rights
Many of the rights protected by a bill of rights are what are called human rights. These are rights people are supposed to have regardless of the country they live in, but democracy in particular is supposed to protect and promote these rights. Human rights like freedom of expression, free association, and freedom of assembly are also cornerstones of democracy and in fact allow its proper functioning.
11. Free and fair elections
Change should be considered a natural and healthy feature of democracy. As the government exists to serve the people, and public opinion shifts all the time on all sorts of issues, it is only natural that elections will produce different results at different times. So it is essential that these elections occur freely and fairly. This means that people are given good and accurate information before voting, and that they are free to discuss and debate it. It also means that on election day, people have equal access to the polls, that everyone’s vote has the same value, and that all votes are counted. Moreover, elections shouldn’t come irregularly or be called whenever it suits the government.
12. Free courts
Even in a perfectly functioning democracy, disputes will arise. In these situations, it’s important that both sides have equal access to an independent body that can resolve the dispute. In democracies, this is the judicial system. Judges are a bit like referees – they’re an independent body that is supposed to apply the rules the same to all. A football match would be a sham if the ref was picked by one of the teams, and democracy is similarly shambolic when the government packs the courts with its friends or disregards judicial decisions.
13. Accepting election results
When elections don’t go the way of those in power, they must accept them and step down. The peaceful transfer of power defines the democratic process. Losers of elections must accept defeat, and though they can and should continue to openly share their ideas and participate in public debate, they must accept that their positions do not at present have majority support.
14. Rule of law
Democratic societies operate under the rule of law. This essentially means that a nation’s laws apply equally to all people, and everyone, especially the government, must play by the rules. It means that the rights and freedoms and democratic processes described above are respected and nurtured. And it means that the laws are also enforced in a fair and consistent way, and there’s an independent body, like the courts, to settle disputes that do arise. Liberties recently published its shadow report to the EU on the current rule of law situation across the bloc, finding a number of concerning trends across many member states.
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