Democracy is government by the people, in which control over policy decisions is constitutionally vested in elected officials. Citizens have the right to vote in regular elections and to freely express their views without the threat of severe punishment for their political opinions. These rights are safeguarded by a rule of law that protects human rights and limits the powers of government.
As the world faces new and increasingly difficult challenges, it’s important that we keep working to understand and describe how a democratic society functions. Democracy is at risk and its survival is in question in many parts of the world. The work to better understand what it means to have a democracy and how best to ensure its flourishing can help us solve some of the most difficult problems we face.
The word democracy comes from the Greek words demos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). It was first used in the 5th century BCE to refer to a form of government that existed in some of the city-states of Greece, particularly Athens. The term later came to be applied to other governmental systems that were loosely comparable to the Athens model, including some of the ancient Roman republics and some medieval city-based republics in Italy, Venice, and Florence. Democracy also found a place in some monarchical European states, most notably Sweden starting in the 15th century.
While some governments claim to be democracies, only those that meet the five basic criteria can truly be described as such. The other key component of a democracy is the principle that all people are equal under the law. This includes the right to freedom of movement within a country and the right to leave if one wishes, as well as the right to form and join associations of their choice, such as trade unions. It also covers the right to discuss ideas with others, to gather together and protest against decisions that are made by the government.
It takes a great deal of time and effort to organize free, fair, and legitimate elections. The right to vote and the right to voice a view on any issue should be guaranteed without exception, and all parties must be given an opportunity to compete in equal conditions. The system must be protected from corruption, intimidation, and violence, and the results must be based on objective criteria. It must also be easy for voters to verify that their votes have been counted correctly and that no fraudulent voting has occurred.
The right to assembly and association includes the ability to speak out in public against decisions by a government that is unfair or harmful, as well as to participate in the development of the nation’s culture. This right must be exercised peacefully and with respect for the rights of other citizens, as spelled out in UDHR Article 20. These rights are not just a nicety; they are essential to the health of any democracy.