DEMOCRACY<br>BUILDING Definition of Democracy

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A Short Definition of

Democracy

U.S. president Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) defined democracy as:

«Government of the people, by the people, for the people»

Democracy is by far the most challenging form of government - both for politicians and 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 / human rights, religious liberty and separation of church and state.


Democracy - Classical Definition

Often democracy is defined opposite to other types of government:
Monarchy Government by a single ruler (king/queen, emperor)
Aristocracy Government by noblemen (hereditary)
Oligarchy Government by few persons
Theocracy "Government by God" (in reality this means government by religious leaders)
Dictatorship 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.


Democracy - Modern Definition

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:

Democracy Form of government, where a constitution guarantees basic personal and political rights, fair and free elections, and independent courts of law.
Totalitarian regime 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).
Historic examples of totalitarian regimes include: National Socialism (Germany under Hitler, 1933-1945) and Stalinism.
Authoritarian regime 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 its population.
Theocracy "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.

Democracy - Key Elements

In order to deserve the label modern democracy, a country needs to fulfill some basic requirements - and they need not only be written down in it's constitution but must be kept up in everyday life by politicians and authorities:

  • Guarantee of basic Human Rights to every individual person vis-Ó-vis the state and its authorities as well as vis-Ó-vis any social groups (especially religious institutions) and vis-Ó-vis other persons.
  • Separation of Powers between the institutions of the state:
    Government [Executive Power],
    Parliament [Legislative Power] und
    Courts of Law [Judicative Power]
  • Freedom of opinion, speech, press and massmedia
  • Religious liberty
  • General and equal right to vote (one person, one vote)
  • Good Governance (focus on public interest and absence of corruption)

Churchill on democracy

«No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time»

This famous quote attributed to the former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) focuses right on the weak spot of democracy:
There is no such thing as the "perfect form of government" on earth, but any other form of government produces even less desirable results than democracy. Until today, no other form of government has been invented that could regulate public affairs better than democracy.

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