Democracy & Justice

Representative Democracy and Government: Definition, Functioning, Future Perspective

Here is everything you ever wanted to ask about representative democracy, but were too afraid to ask.

by Jonathan Day
Knowledge is power.

That poster you walk past on the way home, of the politician wearing an awkward smile, clutching a puppy and asking for your vote, is a pretty clear sign that you live in a representative democracy. Most people do. But, like some of the laws you have to follow, you might be unsure of exactly what this term means, or of the different forms representative democracy can take.

What is a representative democracy?

If your country holds elections it’s almost certainly a representative democracy. That means it’s a system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives on their behalf. It’s a form of indirect democracy, as opposed to a direct democracy, in which people vote directly on policy initiatives.

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Representative democracy gives power to representatives who are elected by citizens. As you may know, political parties have become an important element of representative democracy. They give us a broad-stroke sense of what a candidate stands for based on which party he or she belongs to. Although we still vote on people when we head to the polls, in reality we are really voting for which political party – and which platform of policy ideas – we want to represent us.

How does a representative democracy work?

In a representative democracy, people generally vote for other people – representatives – rather than on legislative proposals directly. These representatives then formulate, propose, debate and vote on the laws and policies of our country. They’re supposed to do so in a manner they think we would be happy with. That is, they represent our interests. This unburdens us from having to brush up on the finer points of law and policy, and instead gives these responsibilities to someone whose job it is to be expert on these issues. At least in theory.

Representative democracy is so popular because direct democracy is just too cumbersome, and people just too busy, to make it work. However, there are still remnants of direct democracy within representative democracies. Switzerland is often called a semi-direct democracy. Representatives handle the day-to-day administration and decision making, but citizens can propose changes to the constitution or request that a referendum be held on any law. Other representative democracies also allow referendums to decide important issues (hello, Brexit). But generally speaking, direct democracy has gone the way of the dodo.

Which countries have a representative democracy?

Chances are, you live in a representative democracy. A majority of people live under representative democracy in one form or another. All EU member states are representative democracies, as are almost all countries in the Western Hemisphere. If you live in a democracy, you could say with near certainty that you live in a representative democracy. The majority of the world’s countries use this system of government.

In a representative democracy, politicians represent citizens and are expected to vote with their interests in mind. (Photo: petermgrund/CC)

According to the Democracy Index, put out by the publisher of The Economist magazine, there are 110 countries in the world that are either full democracies, flawed democracies, or some form of hybrid regime. Essentially all of these democracies are representative democracies. The remainder of the surveyed countries are considered authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, the Middle East states or other countries run by an autocrat.

But not all representative democracies are the same. Some are parliamentary constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom or the Netherlands, while others are representative republics like Germany or the United States. Even countries that are de facto dictatorships maintain mechanisms of representative democracy. Russia comes to mind. And a representative democracy can either be liberal – where laws protect not only our human rights and other values, but also limit the power of our representatives – or illiberal, in which elected representatives, once in power, can more or less rule as they please.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly champions the model of illiberal representative democracy. (Photo: Annika Haas/CC)

What are the pros and cons of representative democracy?

We’re busy people. We have jobs to go to, kids to care for, the latest Apple products to salivate over. It’s unreasonable to expect the average person to have the time necessary to understand the ins and outs of governance or even the contents of a single piece of legislation. That’s the biggest advantage of representative democracy – we can delegate this responsibility to others whose job it is to understand these things, and then vote with our interests in mind.

Representatives can also aggregate the various interests of their constituents to shape laws and policy in a way that gives the greatest benefit to the most people. While we may not get everything we want in a law, we won’t be completely forgotten. It’s also more efficient to delegate legislating to representatives rather than requiring people to head to the polls to vote on each and every bill or policy proposal.

For representative democracy to work properly, it is complemented by participatory democracy. This means that citizens, through civil society groups and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), are still able to communicate with and influence their government between elections. NGOs fulfill a number of important functions, including informing people about matters of public interest, providing them with channels through which they can speak to their political representatives between elections, and holding the government to account when it breaks the law. The freedom of NGOs to carry out these functions and the freedom of people to associate with NGOs are vital components of liberal representative democracy.

That said, representative democracy is not without its drawbacks. It necessarily concentrates power in the hands of a few people, thereby giving them ultimate control over the form and substance of our laws. Could legislation be crafted in a way that gives special benefits to representatives, their family or friends? It’s happened too many times to count. Elected representatives are also difficult to reign in between elections, meaning they could pass laws that make us unhappy, or unfairly favor themselves or others, and we could have to wait years to hold them to account for it.

Should representative democracy be the future for all countries?

Most of us would agree that democracy, while not perfect, is the fairest system of government. It tends to do the best job of protecting the values most of us hold, like equality, human rights, and equal application of the law. And representative democracy is probably the best form of democracy to achieve this.

Citizens still maintain ultimate control over their government through elections, during which they can choose the people and parties that represent them. (Photo: Santeri Viinamäki/CC)

Citizens still maintain ultimate control over their government through elections, during which they can choose the people and parties that represent them. (Photo: Santeri Viinamäki/CC)

Winston Churchill once quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” In short, it’s the best we’ve got. Representative democracy gives people the advantages of democracy – having a say in the way they are governed, and choosing the people who govern them – without the onus of needing to study each law or policy initiative themselves. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to do this. So it’s helpful to have elected representatives whose job it is to know that stuff.

And, if representatives aren’t doing a good job of this, or not representing our interests, we can choose to replace them during elections. This means we maintain control over the direction of our country and what laws we live under. A few puppies may have to suffer through some uncomfortable photoshoots, but the drawbacks of representative democracy are far fewer than those of other systems of government. And it does the best job of safeguarding our rights and values so that we are able to build and enjoy safe and free societies.


-What does representative democracy mean?

A system of government in which citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives.

-What benefits does representative democracy have?

Control of choosing the government, and thus the country’s laws and policies, still rests with the people. But it delegates the responsibility of being expert on law and policy so citizens can go about their daily lives or choose not to pay much attention to the details.

-What is the future prospective for representative democracy?

Pretty rosy. Representative democracy is now the established form of democracy in the world, and the system of government most people live under. And, when they have it, people don’t seem particularly eager to change it.

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