Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The meaning of democracy...

From "A Comparative Study of the Indian Constitution" by Sirdar D. K. Sen (Linky):

The question therefore arises: what is the exact meaning of the term "democracy." Most American publicists as well as some English authors begin their discussions on this subject with an extract from the famous speech of President Lincoln at Gettysberg, in which the President described the American Republic as "the government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Does this description contain the essential elements of a democratic Constitution?

In the first place, it describes democracy as the government of the people, but it should be remembered that all Constitutions, whether democratic or otherwise, deal with the government of the people, because without the people, there could be no State, and, therefore, no Constitution. It would, therefore, be clear that this is not an essential feature of democracy.

The second element, according to President's definition, is "the government for the people." Here, again, it is necessary to point out that this is not a distinctive characteristic of democracy, because even under a system of benevolent despotism, the government is carried on for the people and in the interests of the people.

In the third place, the description speaks of "government by the people"; and here indeed lies one of the distinctive elements of democracy, for a democratic Constitution implies three essential attributes: a) the power of the State is vested in the people; b) the power is exercised by the people or their representatives; and c) the people being the ruler as well as the ruled, there is complete identity of interests.

According to Bryce, government by the people is government by the majority of the people, and this means that in a democratic State all citizens must have full political rights so that the vast majority of them constitute the electorate (cited, Modern Democracies, Vol. II, Chap. I). This definition does not appear to be satisfactory. Government by the people or by the majority of the people is perfectly compatible with an authoritarian regime where there exists only one political party. A democratic government is not, therefore, merely a government by the people or a majority of the people. It must have other essential qualities to distinguish it from other forms of government. In a totalitarian form of government certain characteristic elements are to be found. In the first place, all powers of the State are vested in one organ or institution; in other words, there is unity of State authority. Besides, it is the will of those in whom the totality of the powers of the State is vested which prevails against the will of those who do not enjoy or exercise any power. There is thus a legal distinction between those who command and those who obey. On the other hand, in a democratic form of government there is a clear division of power; in other words, there is a plurality of State organs. There is also the important principle of respect for and protection of the minority so that there is every chance of the minority becoming the majority; and this operates through the fundamental principles of equality and liberty. A government where these elements subsist has a democratic Constitution.

This brings us to the question of forms and institutions of democracy. There are two distinct and well-recognized types of democratic government. The first is known as direct democracy, i.e. where the power of the State is directly exercised by the entire body of citizens of the State. Such a type is, however, only practicable in a State with a small compact territory and a small homogenous population as was the case with city-States of ancient Greece and Rome and the village republics of India and China. The same type of government was to be found in some of the Cantons of Switzerland, and even today some of them retain the relics of the system, such as the referendum, popular initiative and plebiscite. The second form of democracy may be described as indirect, i.e. where the power of the State is exercised by the people not directly but through elected representatives. The suffrage under a democratic system has the following essential features: i) it must be universal, i.e. the electorate must be composed of all citizens without any distinction who fulfil certain specified qualifications; ii) the suffrage must be direct; iii) the suffrage must be equal; and iv) the suffrage must be secret. To these must also be added the indispensable condition that every citizen must have the right to stand for election provided he fulfils certain specified qualifications. It is this feature which differentiates democracy properly so-called from the authoritarian system under the Soviet Constitution where one party and one party alone has the monopoly of eligibility and, therefore, of political power.

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