Image: Theme 'Democracyt' by Pancho

No one is born a good citizen, no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth.
Kofi Annan

What is Democracy?

"Of the people, by the people, for the people"
Abraham Lincoln

The word democracy comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning people, and "kratos" meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as "power of the people": a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.

There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not. Democracy, then, is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be "rule of the majority", if that means that minorities' interests are ignored completely. A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their "will".

Question: If democracy is government by the people, are there any real democracies in the world?

Why democracy?

The idea of democracy derives its moral strength – and popular appeal – from two key principles:
1. Individual autonomy: The idea that no-one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason).
2. Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

These principles are intuitively appealing, and they help to explain why democracy is so popular. Of course we feel it is fair that we should have as much chance as anyone else to decide on common rules!

The problems arise when we consider how the principles can be put into practice, because we need a mechanism for deciding how to address conflicting views. Because it offers a simple mechanism, democracy tends to be "rule of the majority"; but rule of the majority can mean that some people's interests are never represented. A more genuine way of representing everyone's interests is to use decision making by consensus, where the aim is to find common points of interest.

Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of making decisions by consensus, compared to using majority rule? How are decisions made in your youth group?

The development of democracy

Ancient history

The ancient Greeks are credited with creating the very first democracy, although there were almost certainly earlier examples of primitive democracy in other parts of the world. The Greek model was established in the 5th century BC, in the city of Athens. Among a sea of autocracies and oligarchies – which were the normal forms of government at the time – Athenian democracy stood out.
However, compared to how we understand democracy today, the Athenian model had two important differences:

1. Theirs was a form of direct democracy – in other words, instead of electing representatives to govern on the people's behalf, "the people" themselves met, discussed questions of government, and then implemented policy.

Democracy is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority.
Albert Camus

2. Such a system was possible partly because "the people" was a very limited category. Those who could participate directly were a small part of the population, since women, slaves, aliens – and of course, children – were excluded. The numbers who participated were still far more than in a modern democracy: perhaps 50,000 males engaged directly in politics, out of a population of around 300,000 people.

Question: What are the advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy?

Democracy in the modern world

While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy.
UN Resolution on promoting and consolidating democracy (A/RES/62/7)

Today there are as many different forms of democracy as there are democratic nations in the world. No two systems are exactly the same and no one system can be taken as a "model". There are presidential and parliamentary democracies, democracies that are federal or unitary, democracies that use a proportional voting system, and ones that use a majoritarian system, democracies which are also monarchies, and so on.

One thing that unites modern systems of democracy, and which also distinguishes them from the ancient model, is the use of representatives of the people. Instead of taking part directly in law making, modern democracies use elections to select representatives who are sent by the people to govern on their behalf. Such a system is known as representative democracy. It can lay some claim to being "democratic" because it is, at least to some degree, based on the two principles above: equality of all (one person – one vote), and the right of every individual to some degree of personal autonomy.

Question: What should an elected official do to make sure he or she is representing properly those who elected him or her?

"The right to vote is not a privilege. In the twenty-first century, the presumption in a democratic State must be in favour of inclusion ... Any departure from the principle of universal suffrage risks undermining the democratic validity of the legislature thus elected and the laws which it promulgates."
Judgement of the European Court (Hirst v. UK)

Improving democracy

People often talk about countries "becoming" democracies, once they start to have relatively free and open elections. But democracy includes far more than just elections, and it really makes more sense to think about the will of the people idea, rather than about institutional or voting structures, when we are trying to assess how democratic a country is. Democracy is better understood as something that we can always have more – or less – of, rather than something that either is, or is not.

Democratic systems can nearly always be made more inclusive, more reflective of more people's wishes, and more responsive to their influence. In other words, there is room to improve the "people" part of democracy, by including more people in decision making; there is also room to improve the "power" or "will" part of democracy, by giving the people more real power. Struggles for democracy throughout history have normally concentrated on one or the other of these elements.

Today, in most countries of the world, women do have the vote but the struggle has been won only relatively recently. New Zealand is said to be the first country in the world to have introduced universal suffrage, in 1893, although even here, women were only granted the right to stand for parliament in 1919. Many countries have granted women the right to vote first of all, and only several years later, have allowed them to stand for elected office. Saudi Arabia has only  granted women the power to vote in elections in 2011.  
Today even in established democracies, there are other sections of society, which commonly include immigrants, migrant workers, prisoners and children, who are not given the right to vote, even though many of them might pay taxes and all are obliged to obey the laws of the land.

Prisoners and voting rights

Prisoners are allowed to vote in 18 European countries.
Prisoners' rights to vote are restricted in 20 countries, depending on such things as length of sentence or severity of the crime committed, or the type of election.
In 9 European countries, prisoners are not allowed to vote at all.
Prisoners' voting rights, Commons Library Standard Note SN/PC/01764, last updated in 2012,
In the case of Hirst v. the United Kingdom in 2005, the European Court found that the universal ban on prisoners from voting in the UK was a violation of Article 3, Protocol 1 of the European Convention, which says that:
"The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free
expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature."

Question: Can excluding certain sectors of society from the democratic process ever be justified?

Democracy and participation

I don't have any formula for ousting a dictator or building democracy. All I can suggest is to forget about yourself and just think of your people. It's always the people who make things happen.
Corazon Aquino

The most obvious ways to participate in government are to vote, or to stand for office and become a representative of the people. Democracy, however, is about far more than just voting, and there are numerous other ways of engaging with politics and government. The effective functioning of democracy, in fact, depends on ordinary people using these other means as much as possible. If people only vote once every 4 or 5 years – or do not vote at all – and if they do nothing else in the interim, then government really cannot be said to be "by the people". It is hard to say that such a system is a democracy.
You can read in more detail about ways of participating in the section on Citizenship and Participation. Here are a few ideas – perhaps the minimum that might be needed for members of parliament to be able to act democratically, on your behalf:
Stay informed about what is happening, what is being decided "in the name of the people", and in particular, about the decisions and actions being taken by your own representative.
Make your opinions known – either to your representatives in parliament, or to the media, or to groups working on particular issues. Without feedback from "the people", leaders can only lead according to their own will and priorities.
Where decisions appear to be undemocratic, or against human rights, or even when you just feel strongly about them, make efforts to get your voice heard, so that the policies may be reconsidered. The most effective way of doing this is probably by joining with other people so that your voice is louder.
Vote, when the possibility arises. If people do not vote, then members are effectively unaccountable.

Question: Have you ever participated in any of these ways (or others)?

Democracy and Human Rights

The connection between human rights and democracy is deep, and goes both ways: each is in some way dependent on the other, and incomplete without the other.

Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
Article 21, part 1, UDHR

First of all, the values of equality and autonomy are also human rights values, and the right to take part in government is itself a human right. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) tells us that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government": so democracy is in fact the only form of government which is consistent with human rights.

However, a "democracy" is also incomplete without a thorough-going respect for human rights. Taking part in government, in a genuine way, is almost impossible to do without people having other basic rights respected. Consider the following, as examples:
1. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (UDHR, Article 18). This is one of the first rights which are essential in a democracy: people need to be able to think freely, to hold whatever beliefs are important to them, without being punished for doing so. Governments throughout history have tried to limit this right because they are afraid that if people think about other forms of government, this will endanger the current system. So they have locked people away simply for thinking the "wrong" thoughts. (Such people are known as prisoners of conscience.) However, a society without a pluralism of views is not just intolerant; it also limits its own possibilities to develop in new and possibly improved directions.

2. Freedom of Expression (UDHR, Article 19). It is important not just to be able to think what you want, but also to be able to express that opinion out loud, whatever that opinion may be. If people are prevented from discussing their views with other people, or presenting them in the media, how can they "take part" in government? Their opinion has essentially been discounted from the possible alternatives under consideration.

Democracy doesn't recognize east or west; democracy is simply people's will.
Shirin Ebadi

3. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association (UDHR Article 20). This right allows you to discuss ideas with others who want to do so, to form interest groups or lobbying groups, or to gather together for the purposes of protest against decisions you disagree with. Perhaps such an activity is sometimes inconvenient for governments; however it is essential if different views are to be made known and taken into account. And that is part of what democracy is all about.

These are just three human rights which are intrinsically bound up with the idea of democracy, but any infringement of other human rights will also affect the extent to which different people are able to take part in government. Poverty, poor health, or the lack of a home, can all make it more difficult for someone to have their voice heard, and diminish the impact of their choice, compared with others. Such infringements of rights almost certainly make it impossible for the person concerned to be elected to government office.

Question: How well are the three "democratic" rights (listed above) respected in your country?

Problems with democracy

Democracy doesn't mean much if you are hungry or homeless, or have no health care or your children can't go to school; even if you have a vote, democracy is not effective.
Susan George, President of ATTAC

Voter apathy

For a number of years, there has been concern about the status of democracy, perhaps particularly in the more established democracies. Much of this is based on the decreasing levels of citizen participation at elections, which appear to indicate a lack of interest and involvement on the part of citizens. A low voter turnout calls into question the legitimacy of so-called democratically elected governments, which are, in some countries, actually elected by a minority of the total electorate.


Elections and apathy

Turnout at elections to the European Parliament has fallen every year since the first elections in 1979. In 2009, only 43% of the electorate used their vote, and in some countries, turnout fell as low as 34%.
In national elections throughout Europe, turnout ranges from just over 50% in some countries, to over 90% in others.
Some countries, for example, Greece and Belgium in Europe, make voting compulsory. In such countries turnout is obviously much higher than the average for countries where voting is optional.

Question: What proportion of the electorate voted in your country's most recent elections?

Although it is undoubtedly a problem that people are increasingly failing to vote in elections, there are some studies which indicate that participation in different forms may actually be on the increase, for example, pressure groups, civic initiatives, consultative organs, and so on. These forms of participation are just as important to the effective functioning of democracy as voter turnout at elections, if not more so.

Democracy and civic participation

The so-called Arab Spring, where masses of people – many of them young – took to the streets in order to express their dissatisfaction with the government, has shown a new level of civic participation in countries which have not traditionally been regarded as democracies. In Europe as well, even in the more traditional democracies, "people power" appears to have found a new lease of life: students have protested in many countries against moves by governments to impose fees on education. Trade unions have brought people onto the streets to protest about the impact of economic cuts. In addition, autonomous groups of activists have invented new and creative forms of demonstrating against climate change, the power of large corporations, the withdrawal of key state services, and also against oppressive measures of policing.

Rule of the Majority

A minority may be right, and a majority is always wrong.
Henrik Ibsen

There are two problems that are more intricately connected to the notion of representative democracy, and these concern minority interests. The first problem is that minority interests are often not represented through the electoral system: this may happen if their numbers are too few to reach the minimum level necessary for any representation. The second problem is that even if their numbers are represented in the legislative body, they will have a minority of representatives and these may not therefore be able to summon up the necessary votes to defeat the majority representatives. For these reasons, democracy is often referred to as "rule of the majority".

Majority rule, if not backed up by a guarantee of human rights for all, can lead to decisions which are harmful to minorities, and the fact that these decisions are the "will of the people" can provide no justification. The basic interests of minorities as well as majorities need to be safeguarded in any democratic system by adherence to human rights principles, reinforced by an effective legal mechanism, whatever the will of the majority may be.

Question: If the majority of the population is in favour of depriving certain people their human rights, do you think "the people should decide"?

The rise of nationalism

Democracy is best conceived as a process of democratization.

A related problem is the worrying trends across Europe towards support for extreme right parties. These parties have often played on nationalist feelings, and have targeted "non-indigenous" members of the population, particularly asylum seekers, refugees, and members of religious minorities, and sometimes in violent ways. As a defence, such parties often appeal to their support among the population, and the democratic principle that they represent the opinions of a large number of people. However, where a party advocates violence in any form, and where it fails to respect the human rights of every member of the population, it has little right to appeal to democratic principles.

Depending on the extent of the problem, and the particular cultural context, it may be necessary to limit the right to freedom of expression of certain groups, despite the importance of this right to the democratic process. Most countries, for example, have laws against inciting racial hatred. This is regarded by the European Court as an acceptable limitation of freedom of expression, justified by the need to protect the rights of other members of society, or the structure of society itself.

Question: Is nationalism any different from racism?

Young People and Democracy

Young people often do not even have the vote, so how can they be a part of the democratic process?
Many people would answer this question by saying that young people are not ready to be part of the process, and that only when they are 18 (or at whatever age their country gives them the vote) will they be able to participate.

In fact, many young people are politically very active long before they get the vote, and in some ways, the impact of such activity can be stronger than the single vote they receive later on – and may or may not decide to use – once every 4 or 5 years. Politicians are often anxious to appeal to the youth vote, so they may be more likely to listen to the concerns of young people.

Many young people are engaged in environmental groups, or in other protest groups campaigning against war, against corporate exploitation, or against child labour. Perhaps one of the most important ways that young people can begin to be engaged in community life and political activity is at a local level: here they will be more aware of the particular issues that are of concern to them and those with whom they come into contact, and they will be better able to have a direct impact. Democracy does not only deal with national or international issues: it needs to begin in our own neighbourhoods!
Youth organisations are one of the ways through which young people experience and practise democracy and, therefore, have an important role in democracy, provided, of course, that they are independent and democratic in the way they function!

Question: If a 16-year-old is considered mature enough to marry and get a job, should he or she not be able to vote?

Work of the Council of Europe

We will strive for our common goal of promoting democracy and good governance of the highest quality, nationally, regionally and locally for all our citizens.
Action Plan of the Warsaw Summit of the Council of Europe (2005)

Democracy is one of the core values of the Council of Europe, together with human rights and the rule of law. The Council of Europe has a number of programmes and publications looking at the improvement and future of democracy. In 2005, the Forum for the Future of Democracy was established by the Third Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe. The aim of the Forum is to "strengthen democracy, political freedoms and citizens' participation through the exchange of ideas, information and examples of best practices". A meeting of the Forum takes place every year, and brings together about 400 participants from the 47 Council of Europe member States and observer States.

Support for development and implementation of standards for democracy is carried by the European Commission for Democracy through Law – also known as the Venice Commission – which is the Council of Europe's advisory body on constitutional matters.  The commission has been particularly active in assisting in the drafting of new constitutions or laws on constitutional courts, electoral codes, minority rights and the legal framework relating to democratic institutions.

In addition to this standard-setting work, the Council of Europe promotes democracy and its values by programmes on democratic participation, education for democratic citizenship and youth participation, because democracy is much more than voting in elections!