form of government

Democracy means rule by the people.[1] There are different ways this can be done:

  1. People meet to decide about new laws, and changes to existing ones. This is usually called direct democracy. It is never used except in small countries, or perhaps in towns. Modern populations are usually too large to do this.
  2. The people elect their leaders. These leaders take decisions about laws. This is called representative democracy.[2] Elections are either held after a certain time, or when a leader dies.
  3. Sometimes people can suggest new laws or changes to existing laws. Usually, this is done using a referendum, a vote.
  4. Sometimes, people are chosen to make decisions more or less at random. For example, when choosing a jury for a trial. In Europe, trials with a jury are usually used for serious crimes.

The type of government where only one person has most of the power is called a dictatorship. Democracy is the opposite of a dictatorship. Dictatorships often act against freedom of expression so people cannot say bad things about the dictator or replace them for somebody else.

An important source of information is the Democracy Index published by the Economist periodical.

Types of government


In an election, the candidate with the most votes gets elected. Very often, the politicians being elected belong to a political party. Instead of choosing a person, people vote for a party. The party with the most votes then picks the leaders.

Usually, the people being elected need to meet certain conditions: They need to have a certain age or have certain things be able to perform the job.

Not everyone can vote in an election. Suffrage is only given to people who are citizens. Young people are usually excluded, and some other people such as prisoners.

For some elections, a country may make voting compulsory. Someone who does not vote and who does not give a good reason usually has to pay a fine.

The Polity IV data series is one way of measuring how democratic countries are. This map dates from 2013.
This map shows the findings of Freedom House's survey Freedom in the World 2016. The survey reports how much freedom countries had. Just because countries are the same color does not mean they are exactly the same.[3]
  Free (86)   Partly Free (59)   Not Free (50)

Kinds of democracy


Democracy may be direct or indirect.

In a direct democracy, every adult has the right to vote on individual laws. A modern example of direct democracy is a referendum, which is the name for deciding a law where everyone in the community votes on it. Direct democracies are not usually used to run countries. It is not practical to have everyone voting on everything.

In an indirect, or representative democracy, people choose representatives to make laws for them. These people can be mayors, councilmen, members of Parliament, or other government officials. This is the usual kind of democracy. Large communities like cities and countries use this method, but it may not be needed for a small group.



A term for democracies which are not actually democracies. For example, a constitution of a country may be democratic, but ways are found to interfere with elections. The classic case is Russia, where opposition candidates are not allowed to state their case on any of the state-controlled media. Elections for President are fixed, but the state can claim democratic legitimacy, because in principle other candidates may stand for election. Opposition candidates have no access to the media, and may be harassed in various ways. This is the way all the former parts of the Soviet Union are governed. This does not mean the governments are always bad governments. It does mean that holding "fixed" elections deprives the people of a fair vote. Not surprisingly, these countries have Presidents who are never beaten in an election. They may serve for eight years or longer before retiring. The next leaders are pre-chosen by discussion between the leading families.

The European Parliament says Russia functions as a unitary state despite officially being a federation.[4]



Ancient origins


Democracy was developed long ago by the Greeks in classical Athens. There, everyone who was a citizen (not slaves, women, foreigners, and children) got together in one area. The assembly would talk about what kinds of laws they wanted and voted on them. The council would suggest the laws. All citizens were allowed in the assembly.

The council were picked by draws (lottery). The participants in the council would change every year, and the number of people in the council was at the most 500. For some offices, the Athenian citizens would pick a leader by writing the name of their favorite candidate on a piece of stone or wood. The person with the most votes became the leader.

Middle Ages


In the Middle Ages, there were many systems, although only a few people could join in at this time. The Parliament of England began with Magna Carta, a document which said that the King's power was limited, and protected certain rights of the people. The first elected parliament was De Montfort's Parliament in England in 1265.

However, only a few people could actually join in. Parliament was chosen by only a few percent of the people (in 1780, fewer than 3% of people joined in).[5] The ruler also had the power to call parliaments. After a long time, the power of Parliament began to grow. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, the English Bill of Rights 1689 made Parliament more powerful.[5] Later, the king or queen became a symbol instead of having real power.[6]

Democratic consolidation


Democratic consolidation means how a new democracy grows up. Once mature, it is unlikely to go back to being a dictatorship without a shock from the outside.

Unconsolidated democracies suffer from elections which are not free and fair. In other words, powerful groups are able to prevent the system working fairly.[7]



  1. "BBC - h2g2 - Demokratia - the Athenian Democracy". Retrieved 13 July 2010.
  2. "Democracy Conference". Retrieved 2010-08-22.
  3. Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House. Retrieved 28 January 2016.
  4. Russel, Martin (20 October 2015). "Russia's constitutional structure: Federal in form, unitary in function" (PDF). European Parliamentary Research Service. [1]
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Exhibitions & Learning online | Citizenship | Struggle for democracy". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
  6. "Exhibitions & Learning online | Citizenship | Rise of Parliament". The National Archives. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
  7. O'Donnell 1996 Illusions about consolidation