A Short Definition Of
U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as:
«Government of the people, by the people, for the people»
The term democracy comes from the Greek language and means
"rule by the (simple) people".
The so-called "democracies" in classical antiquity
(Athens and Rome) represent precursors of modern democracies.
Like modern democracy, they were created as a reaction to
a concentration and abuse of power by the rulers. Yet the theory
of modern democracy was not formulated until the Age of Enlightment
(17th/18th centuries), when philosophers
defined the essential elements of democracy:
separation of powers, basic civil rights,
religious liberty and separation of church (religion) and state.
Often democracy is defined opposite to other types of government:
Government by a single ruler (king/queen, emperor).
Government by noblemen (hereditary)
Government by few persons
"Government by God" (in reality this means government by religious leaders)
Government by people, that have seized power by force (often: military dictatorship)
Today, the majority of democratic countries in the world are
republics, i.e. officials are elected. Some well-established
democratic countries in Europe, however, (the United Kingdom, Spain,
Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg and the Scandinavian countries)
are constitutional monarchies, i.e. a king or queen is head
of state while the constitution guarantees nevertheless all
basic rights as in any democratic republic and sets clear limits
to duties and competences of the monarch.
Such a king can be regarded as a stabilizing factor
rather than as a danger for a democracy. Therefore the classical
definition of democracy is little helpful - at least concerning monarchy.
Because the definition of the term democracy opposite to
monarchy and aristocracy rather creates confusion with
regard to constitutional monarchies instead of establishing
clarity, it is more appropriate to define democracy opposite
to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes:
Form of government, where a constitution guarantees basic civil rights,
fair and free elections, and independent courts of law.
Government by a little group of leaders on the basis of an ideology,
that claims general validity for all aspects of life and usually
attempts to replace religion. The regime does not tolerate any
deviation from its state ideology. Regime opponents are persecuted,
tortured, detained in concentration camps and members of ethnic
minorities are killed in mass executions (genocide).
The best known historic example of a totalitarian regime is
National Socialism (Germany under Hitler, 1933-1945).
Government by a little group of leaders. In contrast to
totalitarian regimes, authoritarian regimes have no distinct
state ideology and grant some amount of freedom (e.g. economic and
cultural) as long as their rule is not jeopardized.
The most important goal of authoritarian regimes is the maintenance
of power and the personal enrichment on cost of the country and
"Government by God": in reality this means
government by religious leaders. Usually a certain interpretation
of ancient religious laws replaces modern forms of law and is
enforced with utmost severity. Example: Islamic Republic of Iran.