What is democracy?
The word democracy comes from the Greek words ‘demos’ and ‘kratis’, broadly meaning rule by the people. Abraham Lincoln described democracy as a ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.
In general democracy refers to any society and/or political system in which the people are able to make or influence decisions and where government is accountable to the people.
The modern and widely accepted meaning of democracy has a number of variations including direct democracy, representative democracy, liberal democracy and pluralist democracy. Many modern states aspire to or claim democratic status. The UK, USA and France are examples of democratic states.
What is legitimacy?
Legitimacy is an idea that is very closely associated with democracy. Legitimacy is the principle that a regime, institution or individual has a legitimate right to exercise power. It is usually, though not always, bestowed through election. The legitimacy of regimes or political bodies may be disputed e.g.
· The House of Commons is legitimate because it is elected however many claim that the electoral system is unfair and distorts political representation so its legitimacy can be challenged.
· The House of Lords has a traditional authority and its political influence remains widely recognised. However, it is unelected so its legitimacy can be challenged.
· The UK government is legitimate as it is elected with a clear mandate to govern. However, every government in the UK has been elected with the minority of the popular vote so we can challenge its legitimacy.
· The power of the Prime Minister is legitimate because it is widely acknowledged that he/she is the supreme policy maker in the political system. However, there is no legal basis for prime ministerial power, so it could be said to lack legitimacy.
Other regimes could also be challenged in terms of legitimacy:
· States that have a one party system such as China lack democratic legitimacy even though they might receive widespread support.
· Hereditary monarchies such as Saudi Arabia lack democratic legitimacy.
Direct democracy is when the people themselves make the decisions themselves rather than leaving decisions to elected or appointed representatives. The people are directly involved in political decision making. This suggests that they are regularly consulted and their opinions are sought regularly. An example of direct democracy in its purest form is in ancient Athens. It is difficult to use direct democracy in modern day politics although Switzerland does come close to having a direct democracy system although this can lead to voter apathy.
Types of direct democracy
Referendums are the most common form of direct democracy. They occur when an important decision is put to the people, rather than being determined by government and/or representative assemblies. It involves a single question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. They may be national or regional. An example of a national referendum was the referendum on the AV vote on 5th May 2011. The…