An Idiot’s Guide to Democracy

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Democracy is always a topic of conversation in the news, especially during election times. And although most people can link civil rights, freedom, and representation to democracy, they still fail to fathom exactly what it is or how it could affect not just the quality of their politics, but also their quality of life.

Democracy originates from the ancient Greek word “demokratia,” where “demos” means the people and “kratia” means rule. From its literal translation, one can guess the main concept democracy is built upon, which is people’s involvement in deciding their own faith. However, there isn’t one specific definition of the term, as democracy is rather a mix of many principles that have to be present for the word to fulfill its true purpose. The quality of a democracy is measured based on these principles, so no country can be considered completely democratic; it is a spectrum rather than an absolute term.

Casting a ballot can be considered the first step towards achieving a democracy, but it requires the presence of crucial criteria. For example, how meaningful would a ballot be if there was only one person running for office? Not at all. Therefore, voters must have a variety of candidates to choose from. Not only that, but there must also be an atmosphere of political competition, where parties or candidates have the freedom to present their case within a reasonable timeframe before the elections in order to have a probable chance of winning. However, if the opposition was denied media access for example or was not given enough time to organize itself, then democracy is not being exercised.

There must also be some alternation in power, because in a democracy nobody should ever get a lock on power. At the same time, the person who is filling the executive role cannot rule by himself once elected, but should rather work with representatives of the people in the form of legislators. And although the majority decision should be the one implemented, minority rights and views should still be respected or taken into consideration. Countries with a proportional representation electoral system like Sweden increase minority representation, as parties get parliamentary seats assigned to them according to the percentage of votes they got in the elections.

A democracy also recognizes and protects the people’s right to voice their dissatisfaction with the regime or system, whether in a form of free press, a march, or a demonstration. Free press, where criticism of the government is clearly recognizable, is usually a good indicator of democracy; in fact, some call it the pillar of democracy. Public opinion also plays an important role, as it lets rulers know what the public thinks of their decisions and holds them accountable.

In many cases, however, rulers try to sell people the idea of democracy without correctly applying it, which could lead to catastrophic results. Take Germany’s Weimar constitution, for example, which declared Germany a democratic parliamentary state, giving all Germans the right to vote and form parties while also stressing on the importance of free press in all forms. Germans at that time thought they were moving in the right direction towards democracy after years of monarchy, not realizing the enormous powers their flawed constitution gave the chancellor to form a dictatorship - something Hitler certainly used when he legally seized power. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that citizens fully understand the true meaning of democracy, because if they don’t, they could easily find themselves living in tyranny.

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