How do you define democracy?

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Definition of Democracy

Definition of Democracy

Three people’s definitions:

Definition 1: this is a form of governance where every eligible member of society is given an opportunity to participate in leadership by going through an election

Definition 2: it is a form of leadership that is guided by the constitution where society members can exercise their rights and where leaders are chosen through free and fair elections

Definition 3: democracy means the existence of system that promotes the people’s choice of their leaders through free and fair elections as well as the respect for the rule of law

My definition of democracy

There are varied perspectives with regard to the meaning, content and the conditions for the realization of democracy. All these perspectives are dependent on the proponents’ political, ideological, philosophical, economic, cultural and social persuasions (Bassiouni, 1998). The different perspectives range from the higher conceptual plane as was expressed by, for instance, the renowned thinkers from the western civilization as well as other non-western political thinkers. As Buhlmann et al (2008) stresses, many literature materials that relate to democracy theory exist, with several definitions of what democracy represents and what it is. Many scholars, activists and experts, however, are in agreement that democracy has more to do with power, from how power is used, shared, controlled or transferred as well as the accountability of persons who weld it and those who want to have it (Bassiouni 1998).

According to Dalton, Shin & Jou (2007), the widely accepted definitions of democracy have focused on the institutions and procedures that relate to democratic governance. For instance, democracy has been largely equated with institutions as well as processes of representative government. If citizens are allowed to participate in free and fair elections which ultimately give direction to the actions of government, then the democratic standards are deemed to have been met (Dalton, Shin & Jou, 2007). In fact, Freedom House rankings together with other democracy indicators have treated free and fair elections a s a defining element of democracy

Activities aimed at building democracy in governments and international NGOs have majorly focused upon democracy’s procedural and institutional aspects. Groups fighting for democracy have advised governments on necessary reforms in the constitutions. These groups have also been at the fore front in the provision of funds for public education programs that are aimed at increasing the citizen’s understanding of electoral policies among other democratic procedures, monitoring of elections and provision of support for the creation of political organizations (Dalton, Shin & Jou, 2007). Therefore, it is reasonable to define democracy as the establishment of institutions and procedures for purposes of promotion of free and fair elections, enhancement of multiparty competition as well as the majority rule.

As Schmitter & Kari (1991) further argues, modern political democracy can be described as the governance system where those in power are held to account for their actions in the public realm by the electorate who act indirectly through the competition and corporation of those elected to office. By governance system is meant the ensemble of patterns that outline the means through which the public offices are accessed, the characteristics of individuals that are allowed in or blocked from such access, the allowed strategies that can be used by these individuals to be able to gain access and the regulations that must be respected when public interest decision are to be made. For these to be realizable, Schmitter & Kari (1991) stresses that institutionalization must be successful, that is, the laid down guidelines must be habitually known, accepted and practiced by a majority of the actors, if not all of them.

As Schmidt (2006) states, a number of academic researchers have explicitly reviewed the conceptual diversity of the efforts to develop a theoretical frame of democracy. For instance, Sodaro (2004) believes that essentially, democracy allows people to have the right to decide who governs them. He further agrees that in most cases, one the people have elected the principle governing officials, they hold them accountable for their actions. Democratic nations also establish legal limits to the ruling party’s authority through the enjoyment of particular rights and freedoms to the citizens.

In the responses above, definition 1 highlights the role of freedom to participate in an election process as an interested leader. This means that for a society to be considered democratic, individuals must be given equal opportunity to vie for leadership positions. Compared to my definition stated above and given the research findings from many researchers, definition one covers only a section of the governance system that can be conclusively considered democratic. My definition agrees with this belief of a democracy but my definition highlights other principles including the role f citizen in the democracy as well as the need for efficient institutions in the support of democracy. Democracy requires the satisfaction of many factors. There must be universal, adult suffrage, alternative sources of information, two or more main political parties and recurring, free, competitive and fair elections (Grimm & Leininger, 2012).

Diamond & Marlin (2004) belief that democratic elections that are meaningful, free and fair must have a given degree of civil and political freedom even outside the political space and allow citizens to articulate and organize around their political persuasions. This supports the ideas described by definition 2 above. As has been seen in the definitions above, free and fair elections remains the central pillar within democracies. In the spirit of ensuring fair representation and the safeguarding of the interests of the people, democracy demands that elections must be free and fair.

Democracy has also been considered as a result of its outcomes. Democracies emphasize the importance of freedom and liberty as their main objectives, with the strengthening of institutions to achieve these goals. Even in the events where citizens do not have the understanding of institutional procedures of democracy, they will feel the desire to be free and enjoy liberty. This may likely encourage them to support democracy as a way to reach these goals. As Huntington (1991) reported, democracies are characterized by high modernity, development of the market economy, economic growth, without big economic gaps in society, social pluralism, the emergence of a strong middle-class, an educated population, and the acceptance of the rule of law and respect for people’s rights.

Slev (2014) believes that the term democracy encompasses a wider meaning and ideal including individual liabilities and self-improvement as well as the means through which these can be achieved. It is a representation of the desired ideal across the whole world. Embracing a more broad perspective, Slev believes that one’s perception of democracy is shaped by his/her thinking which is greatly dependent upon the political environment in which he/she grows up. Young people who have lived within politically competitive regions, particularly urban conglomerates, have the likelihood of becoming politically involved and will show more dominant political attitudes and beliefs as compared to those who grew up in rural areas. Democratic practices are therefore shaped by a number of factors like social structure, national history and political traditions (Pogrebinschi & Samuels, 2014).

Slev (2014), however, also agrees that the definition of democracy has to focus on the freedom of expression, the sovereignty of the people, the separation of powers and the promotion of fairness in the electoral process. As can be seen, the definition of democracy has to take into account the inclusion of varied social and political concerns. For its successful establishment and development, certain social, individual and political elements have to be assured. This is because democracy is based upon the principle of citizen’s wellbeing and good governance. It promotes an environment where political decisions are arrived at after the involvement of the people and the rule of the majority. Since the people are represented by their elected leaders in general decision making and governance, democracy is used by the people to serve the people. It ensures that the majority become the minority while the minority reciprocally becomes the majority (Campbell, 2008; Sartori, 1986). Therefore, the definitions provided by the three respondents are not entirely wrong but only describe parts of the definition of democracy. Many researchers have included the elements of fairness in the electoral process, institutionalization, representation and respect for the rule of law in their definitions.


Sartori, G, 1986, The Theory of Democracy Revisited, Chatham: Chatham House Publishers

Schmitter, PC & Kari, TL, 1991, What Democracy is…. And is not, Journal of Democracy, Summer, pp. 103-110

Sodaro, MJ, 2004, Comparative Politics. A Global Introduction. New York: Mc Graw Hill

Schmidt, MG, 2006, Demokratietheorien. Eine Einführung. [Democracy Theories. An Introduction.] Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften

Dalton, RJ, Shin DC & Jou W, Understanding democracy: data from unlikely places, Journal of Democracy, 18(4), pp. 143 — 156

Campbell, DFJ, 2008, The Basic Concept for the Democracy Ranking of the Quality of Democracy, Vienna: Democracy Ranking.

Bühlmann, et al, 2008, The Quality of Democracy. Democracy Barometer for Established Democracies, National Center of Competence in Research: Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century: Working Paper No. 10a, retrieved on 20th March 2017 from <>

Bassiouni, CM, 1998, Democracy: Its Principles and Achievement, Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union

Diamond, L & Morlin, L, 2004, The Quality of Democracy: An Overview, Journal of Democracy, 15(4), pp. 21 – 31

Huntington, S, 1991, Al treilea val al democraţiei, Romanian Journal of Political Science, 2(2), pp. 29-39.

Grimm, S & Leininger, J, 2012. Not all good things go together: conflicting objectives in democracy promotion. Democratization19(3), pp.391-414.

Pogrebinschi, T & Samuels, D, 2014, The Impact of Participatory Democracy: Evidence from Brazil’s National Public Policy Conferences, Comparative Politics46(3), pp.313-332.