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Chris Fox's Politics Section


Democracy

The term "democracy", literally meaning "government by the people", describes a society in which the people hold political power. The society may be either a direct democracy, in which the people exercise power directly, or a representative democracy, in which power is exercised by representatives who are elected by and accountable to them.

With valid exceptions, a democracy gives its citizens equal rights of political participation. If power rests with the people, the decisions taken should reflect their wishes (or at least the wishes of the majority). Giving some people more power would skew power in their favour, which would weaken the claim of the political system to uphold the will of the people. Furthermore, if power is held by "the people", there is no obvious reason to give some of them more power in any case.

It follows from the above that everyone, with valid exceptions, must have equal rights of voting, standing in elections and expressing opinions. To further their views, people may join political parties and pressure groups.

There is another reason why a democracy gives everyone the right to stand for election. If those elected are to be representative of the people, the people should be able to vote for whoever they want, although their choice will be restricted to those who are willing to stand.

In order that people may make informed decisions about what opinions to adopt and which election candidates to support, a wide range of opinions must be heard. This strengthens the case for allowing everyone to express their views. It follows that governments must take care when censoring the media or when placing restrictions on parties, trade unions and other political organisations. However, violence, incitement to violence and offensive comments should be banned, not only because they result in physical or psychological harm but also because of their potential to discourage people from saying what they think.

Due to changes in the composition of the electorate - notably with people dying and others reaching the minimum voting age - and the possibility that people change their opinions over time, the will of the people cannot be said to be constant. This gives rise to the need for regular elections. It follows that the Government should not have total control over the timing of elections; otherwise, governments could delay an election indefinitely. Either representatives should be elected for fixed terms or there should be a predetermined maximum period of time between consecutive elections. A Government that is defeated in an election must accept the result and not use any means necessary to retain power.

If the result of an election is to reflect the will of the people, the election needs to be free and fair. It follows that people should not be intimidated into not voting for their preferred candidates. This can be avoided if votes are cast in secret.

There is another reason why a democracy uses regular elections. In a representative democracy, the legislature is accountable to the people (The legislature in a direct democracy consists of the people). The executive may be accountable either to the people or to the legislature, depending on the system. Regular elections allow people to give feedback on their representatives: bad ones can be voted out. A system of recall, where voters can petition for a referendum on the removal of a representative, gives the electorate more control. In the legislature, committees consisting of members of the legislature can be used to hold members of the executive to account.

In order that people may effectively hold their representatives to account, they must be able to make an informed judgement of those representatives' actions. It follows that people should have access to official documents and that debates in the legislature should be publicised.

The people may be given the opportunity to vote on a specific issue in a referendum. Referenda give the public direct involvement in decision making and can be used to decide important issues such as amendments to a constitution. It need not be left to the Government to initiate a referendum: the electorate may be given the power to initiate one by petition. Such a referendum could be called in order to pass a law, or to suspend an already passed law until an election is held.

There are, however, points that should be taken into account when using referenda. Their frequent use would devalue the role of the legislature: the claim of the legislature to be the voice of the people is weakened if the people have an alternative. Opposing sides in the debate may not have equal resources, although this problem can be minimised by having an upper limit on expenditure connected with the campaign or even by allowing the State to fund the weaker side. The issue on which the referendum is based may be complex, or the outcome may be decided by hysteria rather than rational arguments; these points give rise to the need for knowledgeable people to make their voices heard, in order that people can make an informed decision. Finally, there may be a low turnout, allowing a vociferous minority to decide the outcome; it may therefore be decided that a specified minimum turnout be required in order for the result to be binding.

In order to prevent a democracy from becoming a "tyranny of the majority", the people should be given (equal) civil and human rights. Also, the judiciary should be independent of the Government, and there should be freedom from arbitrary arrest.


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