The Essential Features of a Democracy

Democracy is a political system that relies on the active participation of all citizens to decide and implement policies. It is based on an equality of all people, men and women, before the law and guarantees fundamental freedoms such as liberty, security and human development. Democracy is one of the most important and enduring ideas about freedom. It is also a set of practices and procedures that have been shaped by a rich history of trial and error.

There are many different types of democracies, and it is important not to compare them unnecessarily or to take an absolutist view of what a democracy should look like. Rather, we should be concerned with whether a country has the time-tested fundamentals of constitutional government and democracy in practice.

In addition to free and fair elections, the essential features of a democracy are:

Democracies that respect the freedom and rights of all people and support their equal and full participation in society have good governance and sustainable economic development. They are governed by principles such as the rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of parliament and the judiciary from the executive branch. The UN promotes these principles for all countries, regardless of their specific models of democracy.

One of the most important factors in the health of a democracy is public participation. This requires active citizenship, a culture of dialogue and compromise, and trust in society and its institutions. The participation of young people is especially crucial, as the next generation represents a significant proportion of the population.

Another essential factor is the rule of law, which provides legal certainty and ensures the equality and dignity of all people. It includes respect for fundamental freedoms, including the right to assembly and association (UDHR Article 20), which allows people to express their views freely, even if those views are inconvenient for governments. It also includes the right to protest, which is important if people disagree with decisions that have been made by politicians or other powerful actors in their societies.

A democratic society must be transparent and accountable to its citizens, which is why it is necessary for citizens to have access to information about government decisions and performance. It is also vital that they can hold government leaders to account, and this can be achieved through a strong media and independent judiciary.

Democracies that encourage the spread of ideas about how to make better decisions — for example, through educational opportunities and new technologies — are more likely to be healthy and resilient. Democracy also does better in economies that are broadly diversified, as opposed to those that depend on a single natural resource. The health of a democracy can be undermined when the expectations of rising prosperity are disappointed, as happened in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s and Egypt before the military coup in 2013. This creates incentives to pursue political change through radical extremism, undermining the checks and balances that help to limit abuse by those who gain power in democratic elections.