Democracy in the Modern Period
During the Renaissance, when classical (that is, Greek and Roman) learning was revived in Europe, there were a few Italian city-states that practised some forms of democracy. But these too eventually submitted to the rule of autocrats, or became parts of larger kingdoms.
As the world began entering the Modern Period, beginning in the sixteenth century, Europe, after reaching Asia and the Americas through its voyages of exploration, began to exercise power over the rest of the world At this time Europe was dominated by large empires and kingdoms ruled by hereditary monarchs. But as wealth increased, and more and more people began to feel the need to participate in government, demands for democracy developed. Study of classical authors helped to establish the idea that the state should be based on a social contract, whereby the rulers were bound to act on behalf of the people. If they failed to do this, they could be challenged. The Divine Rights Theory of Monarchy, which held that a state belonged to the monarch, lost credibility.
As mentioned earlier, it was in England that parliament emerged in the seventeeth century as an institution capable of challenging the executive power of the king. The French Revolution against monarchy, and the American Revolution against British rule in the eighteenth century, established the idea that government essentially belonged to the people, and derived its authority from them. Even though at the beginning of the nineteenth century the kings of Europe tried to restore the old order, this was only temporary. Monarchies prevailed in most countries until the twentieth century, but the kings had to accept parliamentary authority which gradually increased. Those who resisted the longest were swept away during the First World War. Those who had compromised earlier, such as the English King, kept their thrones though actual decision-making powers passed to the elected representatives of the people.
It should be noted that another concept of democracy prevailed for some time in the twentieth century. This was the notion that democracy, or the power of the people, meant not that they chose their government but that they had a government that acted in their interests. This was institutionalised in communist countries, which often called themselves democratic republics but did not allow elections in which people could choose from alternatives. The assumption was that the Communist Party, which was virtually the only political party allowed to function, represented the people and ensured that they received all they needed.
This notion of democracy proved unsustainable and people throughout Europe opted for multi-party democracy towards the end of the twentieth century. Communists may have been sincere in their beliefs and intentions, and initially helped to correct gross inequalities in countries that had maintained feudal structures into the modern age. But in practice communist regimes proved unable to satisfy the aspirations of societies as they developed. So before long, they had to give way to more open systems of government, in which democracy meant the power to remove governments from power if they proved unsatisfactory.
It is now almost universally accepted that democracy means the power to choose, with regular elections in which people choose the executive branch of the government as well as a parliament which acts as a law-maker. However, for countries that adopted the British model, a more serious question has emerged with regard to the limits of democracy, or rather what are the limits to the powers that can be exercised by a government or by a parliament.
In Britain, which has never had a written constitution, the assumption is that the parliament is sovereign, that is, it has the highest powers in the country. This has now changed, as Britain is a member of the European Union and must abide by its rules. But apart from this restriction, the British parliament can, in theory, pass any law it wishes to. In actuality, the British have certain conventions to ensure that power is not abused. There is also a sound judicial system which ensures on the basis of certain fundamental principles that blatantly unjust laws are not passed.
However, such mechanisms have not been established in many countries that obtained their independence from Britain in the course of the twentieth century. So the idea has developed that once a parliament had been elected, its powers are virtually unlimited. This has resulted in the abuse of power by duly elected governments on several occasions. An obvious instance of such abuse is when a government extends the term for which it has been chosen. The claim is that the people have chosen the government and, if it wishes to extend its term, it does so having won the mandate of the people. But clearly this ignores the fact that a government is elected by the people for a particular period. If the people want the government to continue, they should exercise the right to vote for it again.
People have now realised that there must be limits to the powers of the parliament. The basic rights of the people have to be entrenched in a constitution, and the parliament should not be permitted to change these. Under special circumstances some of these provisions may have to be changed, but this should require consensus and special majorities should be prescribed to permit this. But there are some rights, such as the right to life, which even an overwhelming majority cannot take away from any individual. Democracy, it is recognised, means power to people as individuals, and their individual identity cannot be subjected to the decisions of a majority, however large.
Systems of Representation
Another unfortunate legacy left behind by the British in their former colonies is a voting system known as the simple-majority system that has led to governments not truly representative of the people they governed. In Britain, members of parliament are selected to represent particular constituencies or electorates. Whoever gets the highest number of votes in an electorate is elected as its member of parliament (MP). If there are several candidates, an MP can be selected with the support of less than half the electorate. Since the party that has a majority of seats in parliament forms the government, a government can come to power with the support of fewer than half the voters in the country.
Many countries in Europe have avoided this system in which a winner by a small margin, who does not even necessarily possess a majority of the whole vote, obtains total power. Elections are instead conducted on a system of proportional representation. In such a system parties obtain seats in parliament in proportion to the votes they obtain from the people. This can be on the basis of electoral districts, or even the country as a whole. This system is clearly more just than the British simple-majority system. However, there is the danger of the MP becoming merely a party functionary rather than someone who has close ties with the particular constituency he or she represents.
In the next section, I will look at the system of representation which in my view ensures the greatest responsiveness to the people.