study objectives

  1. defining democracy
  2. examining the different characteristics of democracy
  3. Types of Democracy
  4. Principles of Modern Democratic Rule


Defining democracy

  • A system of rule by the poor and disadvantaged;
  • A form of government in which the people rule themselves directly and continuously, without the need for professional politicians or public officials;
  • A society based on equal opportunity and individual merit, rather than hierarchy or privilege;
  • A system of welfare and redistribution aimed at narrowing social inequalities;
  • A system of decision-making based on the principle of majority rule;
  • A system of rule that protects the rights and interests of minorities by placing checks upon the power of the majority;
  • A means of filling public offices through a competitive struggle for the popular vote;
  • A system of government that serves the interests of the people regardless of their participation in political office.

Below are some core democratic characteristics:

  • Democracy is government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all adult citizens directly or indirectly through their freely elected representatives.
  • Democracy rests upon the principle of majority rule, which means that decisions are made by majority and have to be accepted by all, but minority viewpoints are respected and protected.
  • Democracies understand that one of their prime functions is to protect such basic human rights as freedom of speech and religion; The right to equal protection under the law; and the opportunity to organise and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society.
  • Democracies conduct regular free and fair elections open to all citizens of voting age.
  • Citizens in a democracy have not only rights, but also the responsibility to participate in political systems that, in turn, protect their rights and freedoms.
  • Democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compromise.

Types of Democracy

Democracies fall into two basic categories, i.e. Direct/participatory and representative democracy.

Direct democracy

In direct democracy, citizens, without the intermediary of elected or appointed officials, can participate in making public decisions.

Direct democracy thus reduces the distinction between government and the governed and between the state and civil society; it is a system of popular self-government. Its most common manifestation in the modern era is the use of referenda

Representative democracy

It is the form of democracy in which the citizens elect officials to make political decisions, formulate laws, and administer programmes for the public good. This type of democracy is limited and indirect. It is limited in the sense that popular participation in government is infrequent and brief, being restricted to the act of voting every few years. It is indirect in that the public do not exercise power themselves; they merely select those who will rule on their behalf. This form of rule is democratic only insofar as representation establishes a reliable and effective link between the government and the governed.

Principles of Modern Democratic Rule

These are sometimes referred to as the pillars, tenets, or principles of democratic rule. They differentiate democratic rule from any other types of government. Any democracy around the world can be evaluated on the basis of these principles. They include:


Citizen participation: This means that citizens are part and parcel of what happens in their society or country. The citizens are part of the decision-making process on matters that affect them. Communication is a two-way consultative process, i.e. bottom-up as well as top-bottom before any decision is reached.

Equality: This means equality before the law, equality of opportunity in the realisation of individual capacities without regard to one’s race, gender, ethnic background, religion or whatsoever.

Political tolerance: This means the ruling masses are mindful and respectful of the interests of the minority. While there may be differences between the people by way of race, religion, descent and culture they rise above such differences and give room for discussion, debate and accommodation of different viewpoints.

Accountability: This is when elected leaders or public officials have to answer to the common citizens regarding their actions, decisions or indecisions during the time they are or were occupants of the public offices. Those found to be performing to the required standards are rewarded by their continued stay in office while those found to be lacking in one way or another are punished.

Transparency: To be transparent means that leaders allow for public scrutiny of what they do while in public office. The citizens are allowed to attend public meetings and are free to obtain information on what happens in public offices, who makes what decisions and why. Transparency is a step towards accountability.

Regular, free and fair elections: Regular elections ensure that the citizens are not stuck with bad leadership but that they have the opportunity to throw out incompetent leaders through free and fair elections. Free and fair elections give the citizens a chance to elect a leader of their choice as opposed to rigging elections that return often unwanted leaders to power. Elections are the main avenue for all citizens to exercise power by choosing their leaders and giving their vote to the candidate whom they think will represent them best.

Economic freedom: Economically handicapped citizens are the ones prone to all types of abuses as they lack the economic base to meet the basic necessities of life. As a result they are the ones often bribed with the smallest of gifts during elections, the consequences of which are often adverse, such as returning corrupt and morally bankrupt leaders to power. Economic independence creates the foundation on which the citizens become vibrant and thus able to call their leaders to account for their actions or inaction. In democracies, economic pluralism needs to go hand in hand with political and social pluralism, i.e. the freedom to choose/select one’s political leaders and the freedom to belong to one’s social/cultural associations, respectively.

Control of the abuse of power: Any government without checks and balances on its powers is likely to abuse those powers. The most common form of abuse of power is corruption by government officials. Control of abuse of power can be achieved through a number of ways, i.e. by way of separation of powers of the three arms of government – the legislature, executive and the Judiciary – and by ensuring the independence of the three. Another way is by creation of institutions such as the government ombudsman (Inspector of Government in the case of Uganda), which watches over the performance of government officials in relation to the agreed standards and ethics.

Bill of rights: This imposes controls on government powers in a bid to protect the citizens from abuse by heavy-handed leaders. As such, the bill of rights seeks to protect the rights and freedoms of the citizens by way of ensuring that this protection is enshrined in the constitution of a given country.

A culture of accepting the results of elections: Once free and fair elections are held and a winner clearly emerges, the loser of the elections should without resistance evacuate office and hand over the instruments of power to the winner. However, it is also important that once voted into power, the leaders should rule for the benefit of all citizens regardless of the fact that some did not vote for them.

Human rights: Unlike dictatorships, democracies strive to protect the rights and freedoms of their citizens from abuse. These rights include the right to life, the right to own property, the freedom of expression, the freedom to associate, and the freedom to assemble, among others.

Multi-party system: A multiparty system is a set-up where there are more than two political parties contesting for power. The reasons for having multiple parties in a democracy are: to widen the pool for choice of the best candidate for political office; to offer alternative views to the government of the day as a result of the existence of an opposition; and to enable the opposition to act as a check on those in political office. One-party systems lead to a lack of alternatives for the citizens and concentration of powers and have often led to dictatorships.

Neutrality of state institutions: State institutions such as the police and the army should be neutral and not take sides or be politically partisan.


Rule of law: This implies that no one is above the law and requires that all citizens observe the law and are held accountable if they break it. The due process of law requires that the law should be equally, fairly and consistently enforced. The rule of law ensures law and order and the protection of citizens as they enjoy their rights.


WHY Democracy and Decentralization?

Decentralization and democracy may improve the chances for successful economic development. The importance of local government and democracy is evident in the history of many countries, but democratic local government has been less common in Africa than elsewhere. Democratic political competition can improve governance only if voters have a choice among qualified candidates who have good reputations for exercising power responsibly in public service.

This essential supply of trusted democratic leadership can develop best in responsible institutions of local government, where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office.

Thus, a federal constitutional structure that devolves substantial powers to autonomously elected local governments can increase the chances for successful democratic development. Foreign assistance can help to increase this vital supply of leaders with good reputations for spending public funds responsibly if some share of foreign-assistance funding is distributed directly to local governments and other local public service agencies.

Great differences in the wealth of nations have a basis in their political systems, although the dependence of economic performance on political structures may be complex. Economic prosperity is generated by investment and trade, which depend on legal protection and public infrastructure that must be provided by government. The quality of government, in turn, is shaped by political leaders who compete for power according to the (explicit or implicit) constitutional rules of their society. So a theory of economic development is incomplete without a model of how effective states are built by political leaders.

Economic investments depend on local security and other public services from local agents of government, while profitable relationships of inter-regional and global trade rely on transportation networks and legal protection at the national level. Thus, economic development depends on both local and national politics, and a theory of economic development should include some analysis of the vital political relationships among local and national leaders.


Benefits of Democratic Decentralization

Today, the merits of decentralization depend on the perspective from which it is viewed. Nonetheless, there is general consensus about the potential role of democratic decentralization with respect to local development, and particularly, poverty reduction.

There are reasons for the growth faith in democratic decentralization among which are the following:

  • Democracy may offer valuable benefits (such as improved human rights, political choice, and government accountability) that are also the basis of the citizen’s acceptance of the existing political order. Suffice it to say that where bad governance entrenches corruption, mis-management, and public service inefficiency, while at the same time, undermining the capacity to eradicate poverty and destitution.
  • Democratic decentralization is also supposed to efficiently address a large number of key issues (such as the severe limitations of centralized planning and management; the over-concentration of power, authority, and resources at the centre; the weak contact between government and local people, including civil society and the private sector; the lack of equity in the allocation of resources; the insufficient representation of various political, religious, ethnic and tribal groups in the decision-making process; the inadequate exchange of information; and the inefficiency of service delivery modalities).
  • A government that is knowledgeable about, and hence responsive to the needs of the people is better equipped to implement pro-poor policies and outcomes than one that is politically, physically, and mentally distant from the people.
  • When government is closer to the people, it is more likely to be held accountable by them for its successes and failures in the provision of basic services, the maintenance of order, and the fair resolution of local issues and disputes.
  • Government tends to be more responsive when it is closer to the people.
  • That is why democracies are more and more embracing the principle of subsidiarity:
  • that each government function should be performed by the lowest level of government that is capable of performing that function effectively.
  • When there are multiple layers of elected government, as in a federal or politically decentralized system, there are other benefits for democracy.
  • Lower levels of elective office can constitute an arena for training and recruiting new political leaders, including women and young people who have not previously had a role in political life.
  • And these lower levels of democracy provide a more accessible means for citizens to become active in public affairs:
  • They need decentralized opportunities for access to decision-making power.
  • And those points of local access are more likely to be responsive if they are accountable to the people through elections.


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