What Is Democracy?
The Benchmark of Elections
All modern democracies hold elections, but not all elections are democratic. Right-wing dictatorships, Marxist regimes, and single-party governments also stage elections to give their rule the aura of legitimacy. In such elections, there may be only one candidate or a list of candidates, with no alternative choices. Such elections may offer several candidates for each office, but ensure through intimidation or rigging that only the government-approved candidate is chosen. Other elections may offer genuine choices--but only within the incumbent party. These are not democratic elections.
What Are Democratic Elections?
What do Kirkpatrick's criteria mean? Democratic elections are competitive. Opposition parties and candidates must enjoy the freedom of speech, assembly, and movement necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters. Simply permitting the opposition access to the ballot is not enough. Elections in which the opposition is barred from the airwaves, has its rallies harassed or its newspapers censored, are not democratic. The party in power may enjoy the advantages of incumbency, but the rules and conduct of the election contest must be fair.
Democratic elections are periodic. Democracies do not elect dictators or presidents-for-life. Elected officials are accountable to the people, and they must return to the voters at prescribed intervals to seek their mandate to continue in office. This means that officials in a democracy must accept the risk of being voted out of office. The one exception is judges who, to insulate them against popular pressure and help ensure their impartiality, may be appointed for life and removed only for serious improprieties.
Democratic elections are inclusive. The definition of citizen and voter must be large enough to include a large proportion of the adult population. A government chosen by a small, exclusive group is not a democracy--no matter how democratic its internal workings may appear. One of the great dramas of democracy throughout history has been the struggle of excluded groups--whether racial, ethnic, or religious minorities, or women--to win full citizenship, and with it the right to vote and hold office. In the United States, for example, only white male property holders enjoyed the right to elect and be elected when the Constitution was signed in 1787. The property qualification disappeared by the early 19th century, and women won the right to vote in 1920. Black Americans, however, did not enjoy full voting rights in the southern United States until the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And finally, in 1971, younger citizens were given the right to vote when the United States lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
Democratic elections are definitive. They determine the leadership of the government. Subject to the laws and constitution of the country, popularly elected representatives hold the reins of power. They are not simply figureheads or symbolic leaders.
Finally, democratic elections are not limited to selecting candidates. Voters can also be asked to decide policy issues directly through referendums and initiatives that are placed on the ballot. In the United States, for example, state legislatures can decide to "refer," or place, an issue directly before the voters. In the case of an initiative, citizens themselves can gather a prescribed number of signatures (usually a percentage of the number of registered voters in that state) and require that an issue be placed on the next ballot--even over the objections of the state legislature or governor. In a state such as California, voters confront dozens of legislative initiatives each time they vote--on issues ranging from environmental pollution to automobile insurance costs.
Democratic Ethics and the Loyal Opposition
One of the most difficult concepts for some to accept, especially in nations where the transition of power has historically taken place at the point of a gun, is that of the "loyal opposition." This idea is a vital one, however. It means, in essence, that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. Political competitors don't necessarily have to like each other, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge that each has a legitimate and important role to play. Moreover, the ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate.
When the election is over, the losers accept the judgment of the voters. If the incumbent party loses, it turns over power peacefully. No matter who wins, both sides agree to cooperate in solving the common problems of the society. The losers, now in the political opposition, know that they will not lose their lives or go to jail. On the contrary, the opposition, whether it consists of one party or many, can continue to participate in public life with the knowledge that its role is essential in any democracy worthy of the name. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.
As the next election comes around, opposition parties will again have the opportunity to compete for power. In addition, a pluralistic society, one in which the reach of government is limited, tends to offer election losers alternatives for public service outside government. Those defeated at the polls may choose to continue as a formal opposition party, but they may also decide to participate in the wider political process and debate through writing, teaching, or joining one of many private organizations concerned with public policy issues. Democratic elections, after all, are not a fight for survival but a competition to serve.
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