DEMOCRaCY<br>BUILDING Systems of Democracy

Home  Basics
Definition of Democracy Public affairs  Structures
Systems of Democracy Political Parties Voting Systems Federalism and Multilinguism Direct Democracy  History
Swiss Revolution Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848)  Links
Building Democracy Civic Education Human Rights about Switzerland

Different Systems of Democracy

Democracy is not a sharply defined form of government that would need to be implemented in just one and no other way. Both in theory and in practice there are as many systems of democracy than democratic countries. Nevertheless there are some general features as well as some groups of democratic systems that may be distinguished from each other.

Contrary to other authors, I will not try to present pure and ideal theories but rather start from the other side: how can the different systems of democracy be distinguished in everyday political life.

The Common Features of Democracy

Before we look at the differences it might be useful to recall the basic principles common to all forms of democracy, however.

  • Separation of Powers:
    • Legislative Power: parliament
      normally in two chambers
    • Executive Power: government and administration
    • Judicative Power: courts of justice
  • Constitution
  • Laws debated and passed by the parliament
  • Decrees by the government
    based on laws and regulating the details how to the laws shall be applied in practice
  • Elections
  • Political Parties
  • Referendums
    Though there are massive differences on how frequent referendums are and on which level they apply (constitution or single laws), the concept as such is known in any practical form of democracy.

Three Basic Types of Democracy

types of democracies - any form of democracy tries in its own way to ascertain the will of the people and to bring public affairs into line with it. Theoretically this can be achieved by direct participation of all citizens (Direct Democracy) or by a body of elected representatives (Representative Democracy). Within the group of Representative Democracies the focus may be on a strong president (Presidental Democracy) or on a strong parliament (Parliamentary Democracy). as already mentioned, the question is not whether there exist some forms of direct participation or of representation but rather on how much importance they are given in a certain system.

Example: Switzerland Examples: USa, France Examples: UK, Germany, Spain, Italy
Head of State
any member of government in turn (for one year), no practical importance
The President is head of state and leader of the government Head of State
is a differnent function than prime minister, it may be a monarch (queen/king) or an elected person
Government: members with equal rights, elected by the parliament,
representing all major parties (not really unanimous, but extremely stable)
President elected by the people nominates the ministers [members of government] Government elected by the parliament based on a majority, may be dismissed by the parliament (especially when based on a coalition of several parties)
Parliament elected for a fixed legislative period, no dissolution;
changing coalitions, sometimes even extreme right and extreme left together against the center (though for different reasons)
Parliament elected for a fixed legislative period
clear institutional separation of parliament and government (but the officials may cooperate as closely as in the other systems, if they like to do so)
Parliament elected for a legislative period, dissolution and early new elections possible if a clear majority cannot be established
Government members need not be members of parliament Government members need not be members of parliament Government members must be elected members of parliament
Strong position of the people (frequent referendums on single laws) Strong position of the president (veto) Strong position of the political parties
Laws are created in four steps:
1. Draft by the administration
2. Consultation of federal states, political parties, entrepreneurs, unions and other interested groups
3. Parliamentary debate and final version passed
4. Possibility of a referendum
If a strong party or lobby threatens to call for a referendum, the parliament might be inclined to a compromise, the formal consultation process gives the public a clear view of the critical aspects and the pros and cons already at an early stage
Laws are debated and passed by the parliament;
lobbyists do not have a formal right to be heared, but do exercise some influence on members of parliament in reality;
the president may block a law by veto;
as the president is elected as a personality (not only as a party leader) by the people (not by the parliament), he may or may not rely on a majority of the parliament (in practice there have been some periods with a president forced to cooperate with a majority of oppositional members of parliament)
Laws are proposed by the government (being the leaders of the coalition of parties)
laws are debated and passed by parliament;
lobbyists do not have a formal right to be heared, but do exercise some influence on members of parliament in reality;
if there is a solid majority, compromises are sought within the coalition (and may sometimes represent tactics rather than vonviction), the opposition may be ignored until the next elections but then laws may be revoked or changed by a new majority
The process of making laws is rather slow, which may be a hadicap with more technically oriented laws (regulating questions of broad public interest but addressing a small number of professionals). Laws concerning everybody's everyday's actions, however, may get more attention and acceptance by the public and therefore be more effective due to the intense public debate. a strong president may act immediately - but there is a certain risk that he rushes to conclusions he may hardly be willing to withdraw from even if they prove to be unwise from a later point of view. If there are many small parties in a country, the close dependance of the government on a parliamentary majority may undermine the stability of the government.
History shows that from time to time the Swiss people does correct decisions of parliament and goverment that give in too much to lobby pressure, so Direct Democracy seems to offer effective checks and balances. But sometimes it just takes a long time (decades, not years) until a new idea is finally broadly accepted. The separation of powers - though it might seem very clear in theory - does not automatically provide more effective checks and balances between parliament and government than in a Parliamentary Democracy. If there are only two relevant parties and one has a comfortable majority, the parliamentary system offers few effective checks and balances.


Though there are remarkable formal and institutional differencies between the systems of Direct, Presidential and Parliamentary Democracy, there are more or less successful examples for any of these systems.

Therefore the practical results - measurable by different factors such as national wealth (both mean income and distribution of wealth), accessability and standards of education, life expectancy, infant mortality, corruption and so on - tend to depend less on the choice of one system or another but rather on what might be called an "established culture of democracy", consisting of both know-how (experience how the system once chosen works in practice) and trust that it works and it pays - for the society as a whole as well as for the individuals. What is the literal meaning of democracy

DEMOCRaCY-BUILDING.INFO © Copyright 2004 - 2022 all Rights reserved