The word “democracy” is derived from the ancient Greek words “demos” meaning “people” and “kratos” meaning “rule”. In practice, democracy usually works by electing representatives to a national assembly [parliament or congress] which makes laws. This is representative democracy as distinct from direct democracy where the people themselves decide and vote directly on an issue or law. The Referendum vote on Brexit in the UK on 23rd June 2016 is an example of direct or “pure” democracy.
Today in western style democracies we regard it as essential for such parliaments to be elected by each adult over whom that parliament will have authority to make laws. In the United Kingdom that has been the position for 100 years. [Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, and those over 21 in 1928].
In western democracies today, such “universal suffrage” [one adult, one vote] is held to be normal and axiomatic.
But having the vote and making decisions by gaining a majority of votes is only part of the picture.
Democracy is more than that.
A person having a vote to decide those who are elected is of the essence. That we must make a decision by majority verdict is also true. But there are several other factors which must be at work for this essential mechanism of democracy to work properly.
Other factors must be present to support the principle and practice of the vote. Without them, we do not have a true and meaningful democracy ie the active consent of the governed to their government.
For people to make a choice, they must be able to make informed choices, without intimidation, and in the knowledge that their choice will be fully reflected in the voting process.
There are therefore preconditions essential to a true democracy. Such preconditions for democracy may be summarised as:
- Freedom of assembly and of expression of views, without any fear of intimidation
- the Rule of Law – we are all subject to the same just laws, applied equally to all and without favour
- open, fairly conducted and constitutionally regular elections where the integrity of the ballot is protected and where all sides have equal opportunity and liberty to express their views
- plurality of powerful and influential players in society, such as in the media, politics, the economy and religion
- civil control of the armed services and the police in
- a State devoted to the principles, culture and practice of democracy
- a proper separation and balance between the 3 arms of government, namely the Executive, the Judiciary, and the Legislature
All seven must be working properly for democracy to function as it should.
Democratically minded people should be vigilant to ensure that none of these 7 preconditions is undermined or threatened. All 7 play an essential role for the maintenance of an open and free, democratic society where government is based on consent and where government itself is conscious of the need for on-going consent.
It should be noted that dictators and those seeking a totalitarian type control of society are keen to appear democratic, but will attack and undermine the culture of democracy in their actions.
The most oppressive and undemocratic regimes are keen to be seen as democratic. They therefore maintain “parliaments” and hold elections. But their elections are rigged [eg only one party may present candidates] or the parliament has little real power.
Turkey today provides a text book example of a democracy being turned into a dictatorship by its current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
There are of course different systems of representative democracy.
The United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary sovereignty; the United States and France are both republics with written constitutions and an elected Head of State. All implement the principle of consent by the people via constitutionally regular, free and fair elections to choose a government. But there are different forms of voting system.
In the United Kingdom and the United States the primary chamber of parliament is elected by what is known as first past the post. FPTP. [The French have this too, but their two round voting system has the effect of giving a limited measure of Proportional Representation].
FPTP means that the candidate who gets the most votes, is elected. They don’t need to get over 50% of votes cast.
The strength of the FPTP system is that it gives an outright winner, straightaway. It also tends to give a working majority so that the new government can get its Manifesto programme passed by the legislature.
The weakness of the FPTP system is that governments so elected, often lack an outright majority of all votes across the nation. So, governments in the UK get elected on around 35% to 45% of actual votes cast [and even less if you take into account people who did not vote].
Surely a government should have at least 51% of the popular vote to have gained the consent of the electorate ?
That is what Proportional Representation [ PR ] endeavours to ensure.
But there are also problems with a PR system:
- there are several different types of PR system
- those systems are often complicated to understand, and
- it invariably means that a coalition has to be formed between different parties who campaigned on different programmes
This last is quite serious because countries with such systems can go for months without a properly formed government.
This question about PR exemplifies what happens in a democracy: there is a clash of perspectives and of principles; and the outworking of those perspectives and principles has to be considered and a practical decision made.
This question shows just how difficult politics can be, and that there are usually no solutions which work perfectly, or indeed will satisfy what everyone on every side wants.
And that is the reality of politics. There are no perfect answers in an imperfect world. There are difficult choices, usually between lesser evils.
Responsible politicians and voters in a democracy are aware of this, and behave accordingly.
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