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Democratic institutions

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There are different forms of democracies, but they are all based on a few fundamental and common principles. These principles can be expressed in various ways. Indeed there are no precise institutions but essential principles which must be formulated in laws and embodied in institutions. In his book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch reminds us that any democratic system consists in facilitating “the elimination without violence of bad policies and bad governments”.

A bulwark against tyranny

First, a democratic state has institutions to protect the population from any form of dictatorship. This principle appears from the beginning of the Athenian democracy. The term ‘democracy’, since the Athenian democracy, is the traditional name given to a Constitution which must prevent a dictatorship, a tyrannis. This requirement remained constantly present throughout the period when democracy was the main political system in force in Athens, that is to say from −507 to −322. Over time, the Athenians set up multiple devices against tyranny. ”In democracies, laws protect citizens. Against who? It is clear, against political leaders and magistrates, who, in their relationship with citizens, must respect democratic laws”, writes Mogens Hansen in his book titled Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes.

This imperative is found in many texts, including inscriptions on stelae. These texts condemn any action or statement that encourages the overthrow of democracy by force and violence. There are two famous laws which make reference (in −410 and in −336). To get closer to this imperative, there are multiple processes that reinforce each other. The most atypical is ostracism.


The purpose of ostracism was indeed to avoid the return of tyranny. Ostracism offered citizens the possibility of banishing for many years anyone who could endanger democracy because of their political popularity. The name of the person who seemed the most dangerous for the State was written down. This device clearly indicates that democracy was wary of any dictatorial drift. Indeed, a politician who is too popular can easily overthrow the regime by influencing people and leading to tyranny. In the age of Pericles the function of ostracism was precisely to prevent the rise to power of a populist dictator. Similarly, the eisangelia was a procedure that gave the possibility of indicting a magistrate.

Equal rights between citizens

Democracy must therefore protect citizens against arbitrariness or the abuse of power. This is based primarily on equal rights between citizens. Any democracy implies a political system where all citizens are subject to the same laws. Hansen specifies that from the outset the word democratia is equivalent to the word isonomia which designates the equality of political rights between citizens, or even isegoria which was an equality of opportunity. We find this characteristic in particular in Herodotus who writes: “We always and everywhere find that equality between citizens is a precious advantage: subject to tyrants, the Athenians were no better in war than their neighbors, but freed from tyranny, their superiority was striking.” This text indicates that this principle of equality before the law is necessarily at the heart of any democratic system because it prevents power from being exercised according to the goodwill of the leaders.

On the other hand, whether one is rich or poor, intellectual or peasant, responsibilities are open to everyone and has, through the vote, the same weight to accept or reject political decisions or the appointment of rulers. Hansen writes that “the various aspects of equality invoked by the democrats themselves amounted to equal rights, by which all citizens could have equal opportunities and equal protection of the law”.

The division of power

Democracy is also a way to protect against the abuse of power by creating institutions that can control and divide power. For example, at the time of Demosthenes we saw the coexistence of 7 different institutions: The Assembly, the nomothetes, the people’s court, the colleges of magistrates, the council of Five Hundred, the Boule and the device called “the citizen who desires it among all the citizens who have the right to do so”. One can also add devices within demes and tribes. Modern democracies also have several layers of institutions but above all they have instituted the separation of judicial, legislative and executive powers which did not exist in antiquity and which now constitutes an essential principle for dividing power.

The rotation of rulers

Aristotle, in Book VI of the Politics, sets out the characteristic elements of a democratic constitution: magistrates serve for a limited period, it is not renewable, their powers are limited, there is a rotation, there is a draw or an election, citizens can sit as jurors. Hansen clarifies “When Aristotle defines the political liberty which reigns in a state by the fact of ‘being alternately governed and governing’, he is thinking of the rotation of magistrates and not of any rotation in the functioning of the Assembly”. On the one hand, every citizen must be able to claim the office of leader. Everyone should have the opportunity to occupy a position of power. On the other hand, everyone exercises their power as a judge.

The election or the people as judge

Democracy is not and never will be the government of everyone at once. Not only is this impossible to do on the scale of a city and even less of a state, but the result would be an absence of political decisions. It was Arrow’s work that showed the absurd situation into which a system based on the synthesis of opinions would lead. This would prevent any discussion and would lead to an impossibility to change your mind. More seriously, it would condemn any search for new solutions. No synthesis can create new solutions or face new problems.

From Antiquity, we notice that citizens were not each called upon to formulate their own political solution. They choose or reject decisions, projects formulated by the council. These ideas can be proposed by anyone but they must be written down and presented to citizens. According to Thucydides, Pericles had insisted on this essential idea of ​​the judgment of the people: “although few people are able to conceive a political project, we are nevertheless all able to judge it”.

This is why, in a democracy, the voters sanction and evaluate the decisions taken and they choose by their vote the next solutions to be taken. These solutions are attempts to solve political problems. Indeed, taking an average of everyone’s opinions does not lead to a perfect decision, which does not exist in politics. It is always a question of choosing a lesser evil among several possible decisions. On the other hand, making a synthesis of all the opinions would be an impossible task and would lead to paradoxes, to insoluble situations, that is to say to an absence of decision.

Citizens are therefore first and foremost judges. When we speak of government by the people, it means that governments are subject to the judgment of the people. Each citizen must be able to participate in the appointment or rejection of rulers. Deutsch illustrates this with the example of the United States. “The United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution thus both mention the right of the ‘people’ to do certain things, for example to change their government”.

Democracy thus gives citizens the means to monitor the actions of those who govern through regular elections. This function is essential. Popper even specifies that the essential and important function of elections is less to choose new rulers than to prevent, without violence and through the democratic game, bad rulers from remaining in power.

The protection of individual freedoms

Democracy allows the preservation of individual freedom by accepting as sole sovereign the laws which guarantee it. No group, no class, no majority can claim sovereignty. It is the laws applied to all without distinction of group, origin or class that are sovereign. At the time of Demosthenes, Aeschines already insisted on this characteristic in his work Against Timarch. The protection of citizens by law is the hallmark of democracy. He speaks of the laws binding the rulers and not of the ruled. While monarchy or oligarchy are ruled by the good pleasure of the rulers, “democratic states are ruled on the contrary by the laws which guarantee the security of the citizens of a democratic state and its constitution.”

A regime that allows its own suppression

When we consider ancient or modern democracies, we find that the replacement of democracy by another regime can be achieved legally. A dictatorial regime can only be replaced by violence. Indeed, if we consider the Athenian laws, we notice that nothing prevented people from defending another political system but they prohibited fomenting attacks against them. In Sparta, on the contrary, whoever praised a constitution other than that of the city was severely condemned. There was no freedom of speech or freedom to choose another political regime. On the contrary, democracy allows its own destruction without violence if the citizens so choose, because a democracy is governed by laws applicable to all. Equality before the law is a necessary hallmark of any democratic system. Aeschines opposes democracy and other systems thus: “The oligarchs and those who govern according to the principle of inequality must protect themselves from men capable of overthrowing the state by force of arms, but we, whose constitution is based on equality and the law, we must weed out those whose word or conduct violates the law.” Democracy makes laws sovereign.

Democracy clues today

Nowadays, we not only use the principles set out above to determine whether or not a system is democratic, but we also have indices to assess the democratic degree of a political system. Countries with a high Democracy Index adhere to a few basic principles:

  • separation of powers (legislative, executive, judicial);
  • sovereignty of the people;
  • election of representatives;
  • coexistence of several political parties;
  • equality of rights ;
  • respect for freedoms (of expression, of association, etc.).

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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