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political principlesIn Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published some years back, the 3rd chapter (after chapters on the State and the Powers and Functions of Government) was about the Law. However I thought that I would leave that till later, and move on to Chapter 4 because of current concerns about changing the electoral system. This chapter explores systems of representation, but before we look into that, it makes sense to consider what me mean by Democracy, and how it has developed over the years.

The origins of democracy

The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus, by democracy is meant a political system in which power belongs to the people. This is now generally accepted as the best system of government, inasmuch as it is the people who constitute the state, and therefore the government of a state should be in the hands of its people. However, numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly, all the people cannot rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, at any given period some of the people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing some people as representatives of all the others has its problems.

Athens was the first state to have adopted the democratic system of government. They found that when there were elections the wealthy were chosen as leaders. They, therefore, instituted a system in which the representatives were chosen each year by drawing a lot from among all the citizens. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government rather than the system of elections which gave advantages to the more influential members of society.

Athens functioned effectively for several years in the fifth century BC under this system. But a terrible defeat in 404, in the thirty-year war against the Spartans, led to the downfall of its political system. Some of its citizens felt that the defeat was due to their existing system of government. Since then this system of participatory democracy has never been put forward as a model.

In any case it would be difficult to put the system into practice in larger societies with vast differences among people. Athens was, after all, only a small city-state with a relatively educated population which prided itself on the capabilities of all its citizens. It also excluded women, slaves and foreigners dwelling in the city, from involvement in the democracy. So, the number of those from whom the choices were made was limited. Still, the experiment was interesting, and has since provided a mode of sorts for all democratic societies which aim to maximise participation of people in government.

The next important experiment in democracy was conducted by the Romans. It was a significant stage in the development of democracy, since final authority lay with the representatives elected by the people. Though systems of administration in other parts of the world at the time have been described as democratic, inasmuch as there were councils of elders in villagers or regular consultation of bodies of citizens, these were not institutionalised as ultimate authorities. Power, in the end, lay with kings, and it was from them that others—governors, advisers or elders—derived their authority. In Athens, however, as later in Rome, for nearly five hundred years from the fifth century BC onwards, power actually belonged to the people and to the representatives they chose. Read the rest of this entry »

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Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2019
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