Part 1: Introduction

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Basic concepts

The word democracy derives from the Greek word demos, or people. Modern democracy is a type of   government in which people hold the supreme power and exercise this power through their elected representatives.  

A democratic society recognises the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all its members. Citizens living in a democratic society serve as the ultimate guardians of their own freedom and forge their own path toward the ideals of the preamble to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Democracies rest upon common fundamental principles, not on uniform practices. The core values, attitudes, and practices may take different forms and expressions among different cultures and societies in the world.

However, the basic institutional architecture (political structure) of a democracy is universal. It is the “hardware” of the system.  For the system to function properly the hardware needs the support of compatible “software”. Such compatibility is found when the basic values, opinions and attitudes of the citizens (political culture) correspond with and are supportive of the values on which institutions of democracy rest. In other words, the political structure and political culture have to fit together.

There is a wide spectrum of democracies around the globe, yet every democracy has the same two basic dimensions: Procedural and normative. The main features of the procedural dimension is the holding of regular free and fair elections and majority decision-making by the elected representatives. The normative dimension refers to the respect for universal human rights, including the rights of minorities.  It is essential these rights be protected by the rule of law, as specified below.

When one talks about democracy “eroding” or “backsliding” this usually refers to  infringements on its normative aspects, such as the rule of law and/or civil liberties.

The social fabric of a democratic society contains many and varied public and private institutions, legal forums, political parties, organizations, and associations. This kind of diversity, known as pluralism, assumes that the various groups and institutions do not depend on government for their existence, legitimacy, or authority. Most democratic societies have scores of private organizations, with many serving a mediating role between individuals and society. In a pluralist democratic society, private organizations are largely free of government control.

  • Adherence to the principles of majority rule and individual rights.
  • Accessibility and responsiveness of all levels of governance to the people
  • Protection of such basic human rights as freedom of speech and religion and the right to equality under the law
  • Freedom of citizens to organise and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society.
  • Conducting regular elections that should be free and fair and open to all citizens of voting age.
  • Freedom of speech and expression, especially about political and social issues, is the lifeblood of any democracy. Democratic governments do not control the content of most written and verbal speech, making it possible for the public space to fill up with many voices expressing different or even contrary ideas and opinions. The protection of free speech is called a negative right requiring the government to simply refrain from limiting speech.
  • Freedom to peaceful assembly, which facilitates the use of free speech and considers protests to be the testing ground for any democracy
  • Freedom of religion and religious tolerance allowing all citizens to follow their conscience in matters of religious faith. Freedom of religion includes the right to worship alone or with others, in public or private, or not to worship at all. Democracy makes it possible to participate in religious observance, practices, and teaching without fear of persecution from the government or any other groups in society. As in the case of other fundamental human rights, the democratic state does not create religious freedom, but is responsible for its protection.

Democracy depends on a literate, knowledgeable citizenry whose free access to uncensored ideas, data, and opinions enables it to participate fully in the public life of society, and to criticize unwise or oppressive government officials or policies.

  • For democracy to succeed, citizens must be aware that the success or failure of the government is their responsibility
  • Citizens should participate in the political system that, in turn, protects their rights and freedoms
  • Citizens should be committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compromise.

Freedom means responsibility, not freedom from responsibility.

Democratic citizenship means the eradication of historical inequalities in order to create conditions in which identity markers such as race, gender, language, ethnicity, and others will not prevent citizens from being treated equally and having equal opportunities of access to rights. Democracies therefore create conditions for gender equality and open opportunities for women to participate in politics. Where women enter democratic governments, they can change descriptive representation (numbers) into real (substantive) representation and open the doors to policy changes to the benefit of all women. Democracies therefore enhance women’s political participation and support deliberative outcomes.

Gender equality is guarded by the following international acts:

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 and recognizes that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, … birth or other status.”
  • The Convention of the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, setting the agenda for gender equality in all member states.
  • The inclusion of gender equality as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Research shows that processes of democratization and cultural change lead to greater gender equality and that egalitarian values contribute to more women being elected to political office, which can lead to effective policy reforms. Democracies increase educational opportunities for women, enhance their life chances, and transform divisions of labour between men and women to make them more egalitarian. Positive attitudes toward gender equality can set in motion more diffuse processes of cultural change that benefits everyone. Activism is generally aimed at increasing gender equality through eradicating obstacles that prevent equality. From an intersectional perspective gender equality forms part of the broader equality landscape that  includes racial equality as well as equality for LGBTIQ and trans communities.

Gender equality is a dimension of democratic citizenship integral to liberal rights regimes.

Modern democracy cannot function without political parties, which connect the citizenry with the governmental process. Political parties have a range of roles to perform in a democracy. They recruit, nominate, and campaign to elect public officials. If they are in the majority, political parties draw up policy programs for the government; if they are in opposition, they offer criticisms and alternative policies. Political parties mobilise support for common policies among different interest groups; they educate the public about public issues, and they provide structure and rules for societal political debate. Depending on their profile, some political parties might invoke ideology when canvassing party membership; others might prefer to focus on specific economic or social interests.

Free and fair elections are essential in assuring the consent of the governed, which is the bedrock of democratic politics. Democratic elections are competitive.

  • Opposition parties and candidates enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly, and have the opportunity to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters.
  • Elected officials are accountable to the people and must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek a mandate to continue in office or face the risk of being voted out of office.
  • Democratic elections are inclusive, meaning that the entire adult population must be included.
  • Democracies thrive on openness and accountability, except in the act of voting itself where the voters cast their ballot in secret to minimize the opportunity for intimidation.
  • The protection of the ballot box and tallying of vote totals is done as openly as possible, so that citizens are confident that the results are accurate and that the government does, indeed, rest upon their consent.

Election campaigns in a democracy are often elaborate and time-consuming but they provide a peaceful and fair method by which the people can select their leaders and determine public policy.

Democracy cannot emerge without a prior agreement reached by the political elite. During the early phases of democratisation, in particular, the political elite are the key actors. They are the ones responsible for promoting pro-democratic orientations among the citizens as there is no such thing as an instant fully-fledged democracy. Democratic orientations are built over time, from generation to generation. The role of the political elite might be different during different phases of democratisation, but if the elite consistently adhere to and promote  democratic norms and rules the preexisting culture of group or religious exclusion that may have been prevalent earlier is likely to gradually become democratically inclusive. The unifying message of nation building promoted by Nelson Mandela is a good example of encouraging pro-democratic orientations.

Almost all democracies today are embedded in the state and its institutions. For democracies to function effectively, or even to survive, state institutions must meet certain requirements. No democracy can persist if the state institutions of the judiciary, military, tax collection, diplomacy, police and service bureaucracies such as public education and public health are not functioning well. The performance of the state is called state capacity. The term refers to how well democracy functions and must be distinguished from the size and scope of the government: If the public sector is bloated and inefficient state capacity will be low. The crucial element in high state capacity is good government.

States can be categorised as strong or weak along three dimensions of statehood: authority, legitimacy and capacity. Strong states have their authority and legitimacy recognised by the citizens and their state capacity is high. Weak states are those that lack these characteristics, are prone to experience regime changes, need international aid, and/or have high levels of internal violent conflict.  

The rule of law protects fundamental political, social, and economic rights of the citizens and defends them from the threats of both tyranny and lawlessness. Rule of law means that no individual, whether president or private citizen, stands above the law.

Every state must have the power to maintain order and punish criminal acts. Due process means that all rules and procedures by which the state enforces its laws are public and explicit, and not secret, arbitrary, or subject to political manipulation, and that they apply equally for all.

A constitution defines the basic purposes and aspirations of a society for the sake of the common welfare of the people. All citizens, including the nation’s leaders, are subject to the nation’s constitution, which stands as the supreme law of the land. The constitution establishes the authority of the national government, provides guarantees for fundamental human rights, and sets forth the government’s basic operating procedures. In a constitutional democracy, the power of government is divided between the legislature that makes the laws, the executive authority that carries them out, and the judiciary that operates quasi-independently. These divisions are described as a separation of powers.

Elected legislatures are the principal forum for deliberating, debating, and passing laws in a representative democracy. Legislators may question government officials about their actions and decisions, approve national budgets, and confirm executive appointees to courts and ministries. In some democracies, legislative committees provide lawmakers a forum for these public examinations of national issues.

Executive authority in a democracy is generally organised as a parliamentary or a presidential system. In a parliamentary system, the majority party (or a coalition of parties willing to govern together) in the legislature forms the executive branch of the government, headed by a prime minister.

In a presidential system, the president is usually elected separately from the members of the legislature.  In most of the world’s democracies the president is elected directly by voters; in others, including the United States, the president is elected indirectly. 

The South African president is elected by the 400 members of the National Assembly (NA) at the first sitting of the NA after its election. The first candidate who receives more than 200 votes from members of the NA becomes the president. Since the country transited to democracy in 1994 the ANC has obtained more than 50 percent of seats in the NA. In practical terms, the leader of the ANC has been elected president in all the democratic elections that have taken place up to this day.   

A fair, impartial, and constitutionally guaranteed system of courts of law rests on an independent and professional judiciary. The independence of the judges is bound by the law, not on their personal preferences or those expressed by the government or powerful parties involved in a given case. In democracies, the protective constitutional structure and the prestige of the judicial branch of government guarantees independence from political pressure and an absence of restrictions or improper influence by the executive or legislative branches of the government.

Many CSOs – more popularly known as Nongovernmental Organisations (NGOs) — are organized both nationally and internationally, with a growing number represented in international organizations, such as in the United Nations (UN). Their claim to represent and speak on behalf of the people of the world at global fora is problematic, but global CSOs can strengthen the voice of national ones in domestic democratic processes.

CSOs aim to serve the needs of a community, nation, or specific causes, which may be of concern globally. They supplement and sometimes challenge the work of the government by advocating, educating, and mobilizing attention around major public issues and monitoring the conduct of government and private enterprise. CSOs may be politically unaffiliated, or they may be based on partisan interests and promote a particular issue, or issues, in the public interest. In a democracy, CSOs operate under minimal political control by democratic states.  

Many CSOs are single-issue groups that operate frequently in more than one country. Single-issue groups do important work for which they are often being applauded, but at times they are also criticised as undemocratic. This refers both to the question of whom do these groups actually represent and to their sometime obsessive dedication to a particular issue on which they are not inclined to seek compromise. This characteristic is divisive and incompatible with democracy that thrives on consensus.

International CSOs advocate and work towards strengthening mutual aid, human rights, protection of minorities, gender equality, protection of the environment, and many other causes. They have proven to be a means for democratising far-flung international institutions. They have been increasingly granted access to intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), such as the United Nations system. By allowing more voices to be heard they are seen as contributing to democratising these organizations. However, well-organised and well-funded CSOs tend to be overrepresented, while marginalised groups from developing countries tend to be highly underrepresented.

It is sometimes said that democracy is not necessary for the economy to grow. The example of the economic success of China is often cited in support of this argument. Yet historically, democratisation of a country has been usually leading to economic growth in the long run, while authoritarian regimes, even those with significant growth rates, tend to decline over time. The initial success of authoritarian regimes is attributed mainly to their having publicly unopposed freedom to implement economic policies and the liberty to deal, often harshly, with ethnic and sub-national conflicts. Over time, as growth inevitably slows and there is less prosperity, societal disquiet grows and the system might become unsustainable, often providing the impetus for democratisation.  

Democracies, by contrast, are based on institutions and policies promoting the principles of liberty and equality that are designed to enable firms and individuals to become more prosperous and in the process grow the economy.  In a democracy, the voters have the opportunity to support or reject the policies and choices made by the government. Yet democracy by itself has no direct effect on economic growth. It is only through its promotion of social stability, human   and socioeconomic development, as well as economic freedom that democracy can indirectly contribute to growth.

In a democracy, the media cannot manipulate or disregard issues at will. The media are reliable not because of their good character but because of their great diversity. Citizens consider the media useful in their conviction that through an open exchange of ideas and opinions, truth will eventually win out over falsehood, the values of others will be better understood, areas of compromise will be more clearly defined, and the path to progress shall be opened.

Social media are web-based sites that allow individuals to interact with each other. They include, among others, websites and applications dedicated to forums, micro-bloggingsocial networkingsocial bookmarkingsocial curation, and wikis. Prominent social media include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Pinterest.  Social media have been once seen as democracy’s allies and, at times, have helped pro-democracy movements. However,   they also give far-right parties and authoritarians a platform for creating specific “information bubbles”. These bubbles often contain hate speech and fake news and are being increasingly viewed as a possible challenge to democracy.

Democratic constitutionalism forms the foundation on which a society can solve its conflicts.  Democracy is pragmatic in that ideas and solutions to problems are not tested against a rigid ideology but are argued over and are changed, accepted, or discarded. The essence of democratic action is coalition building. It teaches interest groups to negotiate with others, to compromise, and to work within the constitutional system to achieve majorities. Democracy itself guarantees nothing beyond an opportunity to succeed, or risk failure. Democracy is both a promise and a challenge. It is a promise when citizens learn how to work together and govern themselves to serve their aspirations for personal freedom, economic opportunity, and social justice. It is a challenge because the success of the democratic enterprise rests upon the shoulders of the citizens themselves.


Society is the key element that makes or breaks a democracy. To analyse the relationship between the people and their democratic regime political scientists study political culture, civic culture and social capital. They also assess to what extent the regime enjoys legitimacy among the citizens.

  • The building blocks of political culture are the beliefs, opinions, emotions and knowledge held by the citizens that underlie the political process. The notion of political culture refers to the way in which people view the political system as a whole and believe in its legitimacy. Political culture supportive of a democracy is one in which most citizens not only accept the authority and legitimacy of the state, but also participate in civic duties.
  • Civic participation – or civic culture – refers to citizens who are informed about political issues and are involved in the political process. Rising levels of education may encourage new forms of participation in politics, as well as involvement in social movements and special interest groups.
  • Social capital denotes networks of people who live and work in a specific society. Social capital enables the functioning of social networks within which interpersonal relationships are held together by a common sense of identity, shared norms and values, as well as trust, cooperation, and reciprocity.
  • In political science the term legitimacy is understood as the popular acceptance and recognition by the people of the authority of their government. A legitimate regime holds political power through consent, not coercion, and is based on a system of rules that is applied administratively and judicially in accordance with the constitution or another form of governing set of rules.    

Democracy is in many ways a set of rules for managing conflict. However, in a democracy conflict must be managed within certain limits and ought to result in compromises, consensus, or agreements that all sides accept as legitimate. If a certain group perceives democracy as a forum where to press only their own demands, the society might shatter from within; if the government exerts excessive pressure to achieve consensus by stifling opposing voices, the society might be crushed from above. There is no easy solution to the conflict-consensus equation because contentious cases differ greatly from one another and many conflicts in a democratic society are not between clear-cut right and wrong, but between differing interpretations of democratic rights and social priorities.

There are external and internal trials democracies the world over confront today. Externally the political, economic, financial and technological globalisation represents a major challenge, as do global human migrations. To a large extent, these factors are responsible for unleashing populism – the main internal threat to liberal democracy, with its correlative: social polarisation. Populism is thought to be an expression of disappointment over frustrated expectations for a better life, resentment against liberal elites, and anxiety over physical and cultural security, which is directed frequently against migrants.

Populism is a good example by which to demonstrate the difference between the procedural and normative dimensions of democracy noted earlier. Populists read the principles of popular sovereignty and democracy in the literal sense of majority rule. Consequently, populist leaders regard boundaries defined by formal institutions and constitutional protection of individuals and minorities as obstacles standing in the way of majorities from working their will. When in power, the governing populist elite tries to eliminate the “obstacles” and implement popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that may have prevented their predecessors from responding effectively to social problems. The most concerning aspect of populism is its claim to represent and speak for “the people”. By so doing populists disregard pluralism, which is one of the core pillars on which modern democracy rests.

Arguably the most serious challenge democracy will yet have to face is climate change. In essence, the problem is that climate change is timeless  and affects the entire globe, while democracy is limited by time and space and is characterised by short-termism in decision-making.

While natural sciences monitor and assess global environmental impacts of the breaking ecosystems, social sciences must consider the problems individual countries will have to tackle as a consequence.  We know that natural disasters and food scarcity increase social unrest with effects that historically have been felt most acutely by developing countries with their fewer resources for adaptation to the new conditions. It is thus inevitable that a sharp increase in mass migrations to safer areas can be expected intensifying the already pervasive income inequality and xenophobia in developed countries. No democracy will be safe unless timely and decisive action is taken now. 

Democracy is one of three broad categories of political regimes, which also include totalitarianism and various forms of authoritarianism. The main differences between these three types of regimes include means of access to power, the way in which the government is selected, and the conditions under which authority is being exercised. Non-democratic regimes differ in the degree of rigidity in their control of the society. Totalitarianism is a political regime that has total control of all spheres of life of a society from political to economic to cultural to family. These types of regimes are arbitrary and have abused and broken the law in all these spheres. Examples of totalitarian regimes include Italy under Benito Mussolini (1922–43), the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1924–53), Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933–45), China under the Mao Zedong (1949–76), and since 1948 until today North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

Authoritarianism is a political regime that controls some spheres of society, primarily the political, but in varying degrees also the economic and cultural domains. Authoritarian rule is arbitrary and autocratic regimes can and have been breaking the law in all these areas. Prominent examples of authoritarian regimes include apartheid based on white supremacy and state repression of the non-white majority; communism administered by a centralised party apparatus whose decisions are to be obeyed by the citizens without question; and military regimes where the military is the legitimate power-holding group that centralizes political and legal authority.

Next up:
Why democracy?