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Development of Democracy in the World
  20, October, 2020, 9:04:16:PM

Dr. Md. Shah Alam Chowdhury: The word democracy comes from the Greek words "demos", meaning people, and "kratos" meaning power; so democracy can be thought of as "power of the people": a way of governing which depends on the will of the people.

There are so many different models of democratic government around the world that it is sometimes easier to understand the idea of democracy in terms of what it definitely is not. Democracy, then, is not autocracy or dictatorship, where one person rules; and it is not oligarchy, where a small segment of society rules. Properly understood, democracy should not even be "rule of the majority", if that means that minorities` interests are ignored completely. A democracy, at least in theory, is government on behalf of all the people, according to their "will".

The idea of democracy derives its moral strength – and popular appeal – from two key principles:

1. Individual autonomy: The idea that no-one should be subject to rules which have been imposed by others. People should be able to control their own lives (within reason).

2. Equality: The idea that everyone should have the same opportunity to influence the decisions that affect people in society.

These principles are intuitively appealing, and they help to explain why democracy is so popular. Of course we feel it is fair that we should have as much chance as anyone else to decide on common rules!

The problems arise when we consider how the principles can be put into practice, because we need a mechanism for deciding how to address conflicting views. Because it offers a simple mechanism, democracy tends to be "rule of the majority"; but rule of the majority can mean that some people`s interests are never represented. A more genuine way of representing everyone`s interests is to use decision making by consensus, where the aim is to find common points of interest.

The ancient Greeks are credited with creating the very first democracy, although there were almost certainly earlier examples of primitive democracy in other parts of the world. The Greek model was established in the 5th century BC, in the city of Athens. Among a sea of autocracies and oligarchies – which were the normal forms of government at the time – Athenian democracy stood out.

However, compared to how we understand democracy today, the Athenian model had two important differences:

1. Theirs was a form of direct democracy – in other words, instead of electing representatives to govern on the people`s behalf, "the people" themselves met, discussed questions of government, and then implemented policy.

2. Such a system was possible partly because "the people" was a very limited category. Those who could participate directly were a small part of the population, since women, slaves, aliens – and of course, children – were excluded. The numbers who participated were still far more than in a modern democracy: perhaps 50,000 males engaged directly in politics, out of a population of around 300,000 people.

Today there are as many different forms of democracy as there are democratic nations in the world. No two systems are exactly the same and no one system can be taken as a "model". There are presidential and parliamentary democracies, democracies that are federal or unitary, democracies that use a proportional voting system, and ones that use a majoritarian system, democracies which are also monarchies, and so on.

One thing that unites modern systems of democracy, and which also distinguishes them from the ancient model, is the use of representatives of the people. Instead of taking part directly in law making, modern democracies use elections to select representatives who are sent by the people to govern on their behalf. Such a system is known as representative democracy. It can lay some claim to being "democratic" because it is, at least to some degree, based on the two principles above: equality of all (one person – one vote), and the right of every individual to some degree of personal autonomy.

People often talk about countries "becoming" democracies, once they start to have relatively free and open elections. But democracy includes far more than just elections, and it really makes more sense to think about the will of the people idea, rather than about institutional or voting structures, when we are trying to assess how democratic a country is. Democracy is better understood as something that we can always have more – or less – of, rather than something that either is, or is not.

Democratic systems can nearly always be made more inclusive, more reflective of more people`s wishes, and more responsive to their influence. In other words, there is room to improve the "people" part of democracy, by including more people in decision making; there is also room to improve the "power" or "will" part of democracy, by giving the people more real power. Struggles for democracy throughout history have normally concentrated on one or the other of these elements.

Today, in most countries of the world, women do have the vote but the struggle has been won only relatively recently. New Zealand is said to be the first country in the world to have introduced universal suffrage, in 1893, although even here, women were only granted the right to stand for parliament in 1919. Many countries have granted women the right to vote first of all, and only several years later, have allowed them to stand for elected office. Saudi Arabia has only  granted women the power to vote in elections in 2011. 

Today even in established democracies, there are other sections of society, which commonly include immigrants, migrant workers, prisoners and children, who are not given the right to vote, even though many of them might pay taxes and all are obliged to obey the laws of the land.

The most obvious ways to participate in government are to vote, or to stand for office and become a representative of the people. Democracy, however, is about far more than just voting, and there are numerous other ways of engaging with politics and government. The effective functioning of democracy, in fact, depends on ordinary people using these other means as much as possible. If people only vote once every 4 or 5 years – or do not vote at all – and if they do nothing else in the interim, then government really cannot be said to be "by the people". It is hard to say that such a system is a democracy.

You can read in more detail about ways of participating in the section on Citizenship and Participation. Here are a few ideas – perhaps the minimum that might be needed for members of parliament to be able to act democratically, on your behalf:

Stay informed about what is happening, what is being decided "in the name of the people", and in particular, about the decisions and actions being taken by your own representative.

Make your opinions known – either to your representatives in parliament, or to the media, or to groups working on particular issues. Without feedback from "the people", leaders can only lead according to their own will and priorities.

Where decisions appear to be undemocratic, or against human rights, or even when you just feel strongly about them, make efforts to get your voice heard, so that the policies may be reconsidered. The most effective way of doing this is probably by joining with other people so that your voice is louder.

Vote, when the possibility arises. If people do not vote, then members are effectively unaccountable.

The connection between human rights and democracy is deep, and goes both ways: each is in some way dependent on the other, and incomplete without the other.

First of all, the values of equality and autonomy are also human rights values, and the right to take part in government is itself a human right. Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) tells us that "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government": so democracy is in fact the only form of government which is consistent with human rights.

However, a "democracy" is also incomplete without a thorough-going respect for human rights. Taking part in government, in a genuine way, is almost impossible to do without people having other basic rights respected. Consider the following, as examples:

1. Freedom of thought, conscience and religion (UDHR, Article 18). This is one of the first rights which are essential in a democracy: people need to be able to think freely, to hold whatever beliefs are important to them, without being punished for doing so. Governments throughout history have tried to limit this right because they are afraid that if people think about other forms of government, this will endanger the current system. So they have locked people away simply for thinking the "wrong" thoughts. (Such people are known as prisoners of conscience.) However, a society without a pluralism of views is not just intolerant; it also limits its own possibilities to develop in new and possibly improved directions.

2. Freedom of Expression (UDHR, Article 19). It is important not just to be able to think what you want, but also to be able to express that opinion out loud, whatever that opinion may be. If people are prevented from discussing their views with other people, or presenting them in the media, how can they "take part" in government? Their opinion has essentially been discounted from the possible alternatives under consideration.

3. Freedom of peaceful assembly and association (UDHR Article 20). This right allows you to discuss ideas with others who want to do so, to form interest groups or lobbying groups, or to gather together for the purposes of protest against decisions you disagree with. Perhaps such an activity is sometimes inconvenient for governments; however it is essential if different views are to be made known and taken into account. And that is part of what democracy is all about.

These are just three human rights which are intrinsically bound up with the idea of democracy, but any infringement of other human rights will also affect the extent to which different people are able to take part in government. Poverty, poor health, or the lack of a home, can all make it more difficult for someone to have their voice heard, and diminish the impact of their choice, compared with others. Such infringements of rights almost certainly make it impossible for the person concerned to be elected to government office.

For a number of years, there has been concern about the status of democracy, perhaps particularly in the more established democracies. Much of this is based on the decreasing levels of citizen participation at elections, which appear to indicate a lack of interest and involvement on the part of citizens. A low voter turnout calls into question the legitimacy of so-called democratically elected governments, which are, in some countries, actually elected by a minority of the total electorate.


Although it is undoubtedly a problem that people are increasingly failing to vote in elections, there are some studies which indicate that participation in different forms may actually be on the increase, for example, pressure groups, civic initiatives, consultative organs, and so on. These forms of participation are just as important to the effective functioning of democracy as voter turnout at elections, if not more so.


There are two problems that are more intricately connected to the notion of representative democracy, and these concern minority interests. The first problem is that minority interests are often not represented through the electoral system: this may happen if their numbers are too few to reach the minimum level necessary for any representation. The second problem is that even if their numbers are represented in the legislative body, they will have a minority of representatives and these may not therefore be able to summon up the necessary votes to defeat the majority representatives. For these reasons, democracy is often referred to as "rule of the majority".

Majority rule, if not backed up by a guarantee of human rights for all, can lead to decisions which are harmful to minorities, and the fact that these decisions are the "will of the people" can provide no justification. The basic interests of minorities as well as majorities need to be safeguarded in any democratic system by adherence to human rights principles, reinforced by an effective legal mechanism, whatever the will of the majority may be.

A related problem is the worrying trends across Europe towards support for extreme right parties. These parties have often played on nationalist feelings, and have targeted "non-indigenous" members of the population, particularly asylum seekers, refugees, and members of religious minorities, and sometimes in violent ways. As a defence, such parties often appeal to their support among the population, and the democratic principle that they represent the opinions of a large number of people. However, where a party advocates violence in any form, and where it fails to respect the human rights of every member of the population, it has little right to appeal to democratic principles.

Depending on the extent of the problem, and the particular cultural context, it may be necessary to limit the right to freedom of expression of certain groups, despite the importance of this right to the democratic process. Most countries, for example, have laws against inciting racial hatred. This is regarded by the European Court as an acceptable limitation of freedom of expression, justified by the need to protect the rights of other members of society, or the structure of society itself.

they get the vote, and in some ways, the impact of such activity can be stronger than the single vote they receive later on – and may or may not decide to use – once every 4 or 5 years. Politicians are often anxious to appeal to the youth vote, so they may be more likely to listen to the concerns of young people.

Many young people are engaged in environmental groups, or in other protest groups campaigning against war, against corporate exploitation, or against child labour. Perhaps one of the most important ways that young people can begin to be engaged in community life and political activity is at a local level: here they will be more aware of the particular issues that are of concern to them and those with whom they come into contact, and they will be better able to have a direct impact. Democracy does not only deal with national or international issues: it needs to begin in our own neighbourhoods!

Youth organisations are one of the ways through which young people experience and practise democracy and, therefore, have an important role in democracy, provided, of course, that they are independent and democratic in the way they function!

Author: Dr. Md. Shah Alam Chowdhury is the Associate Professor of English & Additional Registrar of DIU-Dhaka International University.

He can be reached to Cell No: (+88)01716-559369.

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