Democracy is the form of government in which the people of a nation have the power to choose their representatives. So, the characteristics of Democracy are based upon having a government in which the public has the right to electing their governing legislation.
In the Democratic setup, the highest power is given to the people to form the government.
The fundamental characteristics of democracy include the rule of law, legal equality, freedom of speech and assembly, inclusiveness, voting rights, consent, and right to life, minority rights, political freedom and so forth.
Democracy is a set of principles which are in regards to freedom.
To understand the characteristics of Democracy in an all-embracing fashion; let’s get started with the types of Democracy.
Two types of Democracy
1. Direct democracy
The people directly discuss and decide on government legislation. Here, citizens can directly participate in making decisions. This is practical for small communities.
2. Representative democracy
The people select a representative who then discusses and decides on the legislature. Here the citizens elect people to make political decisions for them, form laws and create programs focused on the good of the public.
So, these two types of democracies are being practiced around the world. Before understanding the characteristics of Democracy, it is important to have a look upon its origin.
Origin of the term Democracy
As an ancient Greek philosophical and political thought, the term ‘Democracy’ has its origin in the city of Athens. It is derived from two Greek words-
Demos- Common People
In this Demos Kratos concept of ancient Greek, the supreme power is vested in the people.
As per a famous phrase of Abraham Lincoln-
Democracy is the government ‘of the People, by the people, and for the people.
Some people get confused between the terms ‘Freedom’ & ‘Democracy’. For understanding the characteristics of Democracy, it is also essential to understand this difference as well.
Difference between Democracy & Freedom
You may find some people using Democracy and Freedom interchangeably as per their convenience, but let me clarify that these two terms are not synonyms at all.
You can consider Democracy as the institutionalization of freedom.
Democracy incorporates the set of principles and concepts about freedom.
But in addition to all this, Democracy also includes laws, regulations, procedures, and practices that are changed and implemented long and testing times of history.
As per the preamble to ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ of the United Nations, the ideals decided for the Democracy are-
‘Recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.’
So, all in all, Democracy depends upon a group of values, practices, fundamental principles and attitudes that incorporate varieties of expressions and forms amongst the societies and cultures across the society.
Let us now have a look upon some of the most important characteristics of Democracy in an all-inclusive manner-
The Main Characteristics of Democracy are
1) Popular Sovereignty
In a democracy, the power is given to adult citizens who can freely choose their representatives. Popular sovereignty is the essence of democracy. The government obtains its power from the people. Through elections, people can change the government entirely.
The adult citizens of the country exercise power and civic responsibility in the democracy by using their direct votes or with the help of their freely elected representatives.
2) Majority Rule and Individual Rights
Democracy follows the decision-making approach of majority rule. It focuses on individual rights within the same. All levels of the government within democracies are accessible to the people and are responsive as well.
The legislature is responsible for passing the laws by the majority.
In Democracy, decentralize the central government at different local and regional levels in which governments at all the levels are responsible and accessible to the people.
The executive takes the decisions by majority rule as well. Next, the Supreme Court makes its rulings and judgments by the majority. While the majority takes decisions, it also includes the views and the wishes of the minorities. Decisions are made by consensus, accommodating both the majority as well as the opposition.
3) Political and Civil Liberty
The primary objective of democracies is to protect the human rights of every citizen. These include:
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom to choose their religion
- Freedom to participate and organize cultural, economic, and political events in the society
4) Free and Fair Elections
All adult citizens have the right to vote for their representatives. The election process is free and fair and is held at regular intervals.
In a democracy, elections should be held at regular intervals. They should follow a well-accepted and trusted procedure. It is the process through which the citizens elect their leaders (representatives) for the next 4 to 5 years.
Every state within a democracy provides efficient and independent (of any tampering) machinery for each election cycle.
Voting has to be accessible to the citizens of the legal voting age.
Key Features of Democratic Elections
- Opposition parties and candidates need to enjoy the freedom of assembly, speech, and movement
- Elections need to be periodic in a democracy
- Democratic elections should be inclusive, and voter should be large enough to include all the adult population
- Voters in democracy cast their ballots in secret for neutralizing the chances of intimidation
- Democracy needs to have a loyal opposition
5) Right to Contest in Elections
Moreover, people with the right ages should be allowed to contest in the elections if they wish to do so. Democracies decide an age limit after which any citizen fulfilling specific criteria can participate in the election.
The principle of justice focuses on the fact that no two people are unequal.
Every individual is treated as an equal, without any discrimination. The cornerstones of democracy include political as well as social equality.
Everyone in a democracy enjoys the same political rights, equality before the law and equality in terms of opportunities.
a) Equality of Opportunities
Equal opportunities refer to the fact that every individual should be free and have a fair chance to compete for what they want to. Furthermore, they should be selected based on their qualifications as well as their abilities. In a democracy, each person should be able to have the opportunity to grow and develop in a society. They should also be able to contribute in a way that helps the community become better.
b) Equality in Political Participation
As it is popularly said, “Democracy is for the people, by the people, and of the people”. It allows equal and free participation in political elections for all. For this purpose, the Universal Adult Franchise is granted to all individuals.
Every citizen has the right to contest in a political system. It guarantees the right to vote for every adult who is the age of 18 or above (in India), irrespective of their caste, creed, religion, and sex. All votes have the same value.
Moreover, anyone with the right qualifications and abilities can compete in elections and hold a public office if elected.
c) Political and Civic Equality
A democracy gives equal political rights to every citizen of the nation. Everyone is free from discrimination. The political, as well as civic equality among everyone, is regarded as a fundamental right.
d) Equality before the Law:
“Every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law.” There is no discrimination by the law. This applies to both the governed and the governor.
e) Economic Equality:
Constitutional democracy believes that every citizen has access to equal opportunities which can help them improve their wellbeing. This democracy also aims to reduce and eliminate the differences between wealth by introducing social welfare programs and progressive taxation.
A set of regulations governs a democracy. Everyone is regarded equally under the law, and the laws hold the same for everyone.
The government is operational under the set of laws, i.e. the Constitution. The law is supreme.
Equality under the law
Also known as equality before the law, legal equality, equality in the eyes of the law, and legal egalitarianism is the fundamental principle that each individual is treated equally in the eyes of the law and everyone subjects to the same laws of justice.
8) Freedom and Fundamental Rights
Within a democracy, each individual enjoys the freedom and fundamental rights.
These rights include the protection of all rights by the courts. Democracy consists of an independent judicial system that is concentrated on protecting the rights and freedom of the citizens of the nation.
Freedom includes the right to freedom of expression and speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of the press, freedom from arbitrary arrests, freedom to form associations, and freedom to enjoy family life.
Judiciary is regarded as the protector and the guardian of the Constitution as well as the fundamental rights of the citizens. It is also the interpreter of the same.
It is crucial to keep it separate from the controls of the executive and the legislature so that it can perform its role efficiently without any tampering.
The judiciary also has the power of rejecting laws or acts of the executive and the legislature which are deemed as unconstitutional.
10) Transparency of a Government
A government formed through democracy should be transparent and open.
It should be responsive to the demands of the people. Moreover, it should act according to the wishes of the people and always aim for the best for the country and its citizens. The government is still accountable for its acts.
The parliament is a mirror of the public’s opinion.
The parliament first approves any policy that the government tries to implement. The parliament consists of the representatives selected by the citizens.
The power in a democracy is not centralized. Instead, it is kept decentralized through large sections of people.
Through a system of internet checks as well as balances, it is made sure that the power is not misused. It is further kept in check with the help of political-socio-economic checks and balances.
12) Right to Criticize
In a democracy, people have the right to criticize any policy in the government.
The fundamental rights include the right to change the government as well as to oppose it. These are the features of representative democracy.
13) Basic Rights
The protection of fundamental rights is the primary objective of a government in a constitutional democracy.
These rights are not just limited to property, life, and liberty. They can be extended to social and economic reasons, such as healthcare, education, and employment.
14) Freedom of expression and conscience
The protection of these helps in the preservation of democracy.
It also helps with the development of a human personality.
15) Civil society and privacy
A constitution should recognize as well as protect the privacy of an individual, comprising of personal, family, religion and any other associated aspects and activities.
There should not be any unfair and unreasonable intrusions by the government.
Democracy promotes the following forms of justice-
a) Distributive Justice: Fair distribution of the burdens and the benefits of society.
b) Corrective Justice: Proper and appropriate responses to wrongdoings and injuries.
c) Procedural Justice: This involves the use of fair procedures for gathering information. This is further used for making decisions by governmental agencies, such as courts and law enforcement agencies.
Democracies are based on free ideas and transparency, as well as the availability of information through a free press.
They are also based on the freedom to express in all fields of human efforts.
18) Majority Rule and Minority Rights
In Democracy, citizens make their preferred political decisions by majority rule, which is further coupled with individual human rights protecting the rights of minorities and dissenters.
In a democracy, the rights of minorities cannot be ruled out by majority vote; as such rights are not based upon the goodwill of the ruling party or the majority vote.
19) Pluralism and Democratic Society
This is the inherent characteristic of democracy to have a government that acts as a thread for the variety of public and private institutions, organizations, political parties, associations, and legal forums.
It is also understood that the different elements of a democratic society do not depend upon the government for their existence, authority, channelization, and legitimacy
20) Religious Freedom and Tolerance
Democracy allows all the citizens to opt for their conscience when it comes to their religious faith. Religious freedom comprises-
- Freedom to Worship Alone
- Freedom to Worship with others in private or in public
- Freedom to not worship at all
- Freedom to participate in religious teaching, practice, and observance
- Freedom to not participate in any religious activities
While opting for their preferred ethical choices, citizens should never have any fear of persecution from the government or any other group of society.
21) Citizen Responsibilities
One of the key characteristics of Democracy includes active, peaceful and deliberate participation of people in their nation or the community.
As per the analysis of Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, an educational policy analyst, Democracy is not static; it is evolutionary. It needs tolerance, compromises, and co-operation among all citizens. Freedom in a democracy does not mean freedom from responsibilities, but inherently freedom also incorporates the responsibility.
Having the willingness to believe that ‘people that are different from you also have similar rights as you have’ is also one of the most important characteristics of Democracy.
All in all, rights and responsibilities are closely associated with democracy.
Constitution states the fundamental obligations and the limitations on the state power. Constitution plays a significant role in deciding the aspirations and purposes for ensuring the common welfare of all the citizens.
Federalism and unitary administrations are the two ways of government. In Federalism, power is shared at the local, regional, state and national levels.
23) Three Pillars of Democratic Governments
In Democracies, governments are channelized with the help of three pillars, and they are-
Legislature- It is used for making the laws
Executive Authority- It is used for carrying out the laws
Independent Judiciary- It is responsible for operating quasi-independent
24) Free and Independent Media
Media plays a key role in a democracy by informing and educating citizens in many ways. From the traditional Radio, Newspapers, Television, Books, Magazines, etc. to new media like Satellite Television, the Internet and Social Media, the independence of media is one of the most significant characteristics of democracy.
Media serves a different role in a democracy such as-
- Informing and educating citizens
- Advocating without the pretext of objectivity
- Serving as a watchdog upon various institutions and government
- Active role in the public debates via editorials, investigative reporting
- Media also plays a crucial role in setting the agenda
25) Inclusion of Political Parties and Interest Groups
Political parties are one of the inevitable characteristics of Democracy. Either they are in the majority of the opposition; Political parties are the significant part of an efficient democracy.
Different private and volunteer organizations are known as interest groups and NGOs (Nongovernmental organizations) are also the inevitable parts of Democracy.
26) Civil-Military Partnerships in Democracy
In a democracy, the military is used for serving the nation, and it will never lead the nation.
Heads of the military are responsible for advising the elected leaders as per the security needs of the nation.
Wrapping it up!
In conclusion, there are several other characteristics and values of a democracy.
Availability of all necessary rights, equality, popular sovereignty, responsible government, laws, and the decentralization of powers are the principles without which democracy fails.
Democracy is the idea of liberalism having political, economic, as well as social liberalism as the hallmark of democracy. All people of a democracy are sovereign.
What are your thoughts about the aforementioned characteristics of Democracy?
Did we miss any of the significant points that you consider integral parts of successful democracies around the world?
Do you think Democracy is the best way of governing a country or are you in favor of any other alternatives? Share your views with us in the comment section below.