Democracy & Justice

Different Types of Democracy and Their Main Characteristics

Democracy allows people to have their say about how they want to be governed, but not all democracies look the same. Here's a look at the different types of democracy, their similarities and their differences.

by Eleanor Brooks

At its core, democracy is about empowering people to influence the society they live in. A democratic society recognises that the role of the state is to serve the people and to be guided by their needs and social values.

But how does this work in practice?

Collective decision-making is challenging, especially on a national level. Think how hard it is for a group of friends to decide together where to eat on a Saturday night. Multiply that by millions of people with wildly different views trying to find a consensus on how to run a country – from banal decisions like parking rules to stickier moral questions, like how much of the state’s funds should be spent on life-saving medical treatment or deciding the tax rate.

Democracy strives to foster peaceful co-existence by allowing people to have their say about how they want to be governed and supporting communities to find common solutions to shared issues.

Given that most of us in Europe live under a representative democracy, many of us associate democracy with elections. But choosing our political leaders is just one way to bring democratic values to life.

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Direct Democracy

Direct democracy is often considered the ‘purest form’ of democracy because it foregrounds the will of the people in deciding how society should be run. Rather than electing political representatives to make choices on their behalf, citizens themselves have the decision-making power to vote on specific policies and laws, such as voting in a referendum, and they can even propose new laws or amend existing ones. Direct democracy may also emphasize the involvement of citizens in the deliberative stage of law-making, giving people the opportunity to express their views and opinions before a consensus is reached.

The benefits of direct democracy are improved transparency and cooperation, and it makes citizens themselves accountable for the outcomes of their choices, good and bad. However, in order to be effective, it requires ordinary people to be well-informed about the issues they are voting on, which can be challenging given the demands of modern life. There is also a risk that the tyranny of the majority will prevail, resulting in the rights of minorities being overlooked. Switzerland is often upheld as an example of direct democracy, although in reality it operates as a hybrid system, mixing elements of direct democracy and representative democracy.

Representative Democracy

In a representative democracy, citizens elect political representatives to act on their behalf and make decisions in their best interests. Similar to direct democracy, representative democracy is founded on the principle of popular sovereignty, that the people are the source of political power. Periodic elections give citizens the opportunity to hold their elected representatives accountable.

One of the advantages of representative democracy is that there are systems in place to foster a pluralistic society, one which strikes a balance between the views of the majority and the rights of minority groups. Due to the separation of powers between the courts and government, the judiciary can intervene if politicians infringe on the freedoms of minorities. In practise, most representative democracies also incorporate dimensions of direct democracy, such as encouraging citizens to express their opinions through political debate, referendums and public consultations.

Constitutional Democracy

In a constitutional democracy, the constitution is regarded as the supreme law of the land. This means it takes precedence over all other laws, and any laws which are inconsistent with it are considered invalid. The constitution functions as a limit on the government by prescribing the powers and responsibilities of different branches of government and creating mechanisms to prevent abuses of power and safeguard individuals rights. The constitution can be amended to reflect society’s evolving views by following specific procedures, typically a referendum with a simple majority needed to pass. For example, in Ireland, two successful referendums were held to amend the constitution to allow for abortion and gay marriage following grass roots campaigns which had widespread public support.

There are different types of constitutional governments. The U.K. for example, has a constitutional monarchy, in which the executive branch of government is headed by the monarch, although their position is mostly symbolic, whereas in other countries the head of state is an elected president.

Parliamentary Democracy

In a parliamentary democracy, the government is formed by the party winning the most seats and typically the Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party. If a single party wins the majority of the votes, a majority government is formed. But if no party on its own wins the majority, a coalition (or minority) government is formed comprised of parties who negotiate an agreement together. As the head of the government, the Prime Minister is responsible for the decisions and policies of government, assigning cabinet ministerial roles, as well as representing the country.

While there is separation of powers between the government (the executive branch), lawmakers (the legislative branch), and the courts (the judicial branch), in a parliamentary democracy there is a strong fusion between the government and the legislature. In order to remain in power, the government must have the continued support of the legislative branch, which is made up of elected members of parliament (MP) and is responsible for making law.

If the legislature disapproves of actions taken by government’s action or the Prime Minister, MPs can hold a vote of no confidence to decide if the government should continue. This could lead to new elections and a new Prime Minister being appointed. Votes on core parts of a government’s agenda can also be considered unofficial votes of confidence, because if the executive and the legislature cannot agree on its central issues, it suggests that confidence has been lost.

Presidential Democracy

In a presidential democracy, the president is elected by the public to head the executive branch of government. Typically, the president is responsible for implementing and enforcing laws, foreign affair relations, appointing officials to the executive branch, as well as serving as commander-in-chief of the military.

While the president works alongside lawmakers, the separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary is intrinsic to the presidential system. Therefore, in contrast to a parliamentary democracy, the president does not need the support of the legislature in order to remain in power. An advantage of this is that it increases checks and balances, as each branch monitors the behaviour of the other and lawmakers can more easily vote against issues they disagree with, without fear of triggering a vote of confidence as might result in a parliamentary democracy.

Due to this division of powers, a presidential democracy is attributed as being able to respond more nimbly to crisis situations if the actions are within the powers of the president. However, the independence also has its downsides. If the legislature and the executive are controlled by opposing parties this can result in gridlock, which prevents new laws from being passed. This has been an issue in the U.S., when the Democrats and Republicans work against each other by blocking legislation from passing until certain demands are met.

Monitory Democracy

Monitory democracy can be considered as an enhanced version of representative democracy as it stresses ongoing citizenship participation in decision-making, in addition to voting in periodic elections. According to John Keane, who coined the term monitory democracy, political representation extends beyond "'one person, one vote, one representative' and is transformed into ‘one person, many interests, many voices, multiple votes, multiple representatives’".

Monitory democracy aims to put structures in place that enable communication and collaboration between politicians, such as holding public meetings, carrying out evaluations or impact assessments, as well as setting up monitoring institutions to investigate citizen complaints. Public watchdogs, such as civil society organizations and the media, play an important role for keeping the public informed, facilitating civic engagement, and exposing government wrongdoing. This enhances transparency and emphasizes a bottom-up approach in which change is driven by citizens.

Autocratic Democracy

An ‘autocratic democracy’ may sound like an oxymoron, mostly because it is. An autocratic democracy, also known as an illiberal democracy or a hybrid regime, is a form of government which presents itself as democratic, while also presenting qualities of an authoritarian state, with all the power concentrated in the ruling elite, or a charismatic ruling leader.

An autocratic democracy will typically have many of the ingredients of a democracy, such as holding elections, however these are often rigged or manipulated to ensure the ruling party or leader maintains their grip on power. Once in power, typically the ruling elite will dismantle democratic checks and balances designed to restrict their power, such as bringing the courts, the media and oversight bodies under their control. Autocratic democracies lack pluralism, with the government controlling public opinion and silencing their critics. Messaging will be tailored to mirror the views of the majority population and minorities are scapegoated for society's problems.

In 2022, the European Parliament declared Hungary to be a “hybrid regime of electoral democracy”. This follows the re-election of Viktor Orban for a fourth consecutive term, with his party Fidesz winning a supermajority in an election that has been described as ‘free but not fair’ given the unfair competition in favour of the ruling government. As reported in Liberties’ Rule of Law Report 2023, large swathes of the media in Hungary are de-facto under government control and critical voices are silenced through smear campaigns.

In reality, most of us live under a democratic structure which fuses multiple forms of democracy, allowing us to periodically choose our leaders while also maintaining an on-going dialogue between politicians and the people through protests, political debate and referendums.

Democracy is not fixed, it is a living, breathing entity which is constantly evolving in response to its environment. This fluidity enables it to accommodate people’s changing opinions, like being more accepting of the LGBT community or giving women equal rights to men. However, it also makes it vulnerable, as power-hungry politicians can abuse this flexibility by stripping back democratic safeguards.

We shouldn’t take democracy for granted, nor should we neglect it. When we come together and march the streets to stand up for what we believe in, we remind politicians that their political power comes from the support of people - and we can just as easily take it away.

Further reading:

14 Principles of Democracy

Which are the Most and Least Democratic Countries in the World?

Governments Continue Weakening Democracy: EU Rule of Law Report By 45 NGOs

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