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What is Democracy?

Bernard Edirisinghe

It is important to study what is meant by democracy due to several reasons. Detachment of youth and youngsters from active politics, citizens choosing corrupted and uneducated representatives through elections can bring long-term damages to democracy in a country.

Democracy can be identified in two aspects. The most famous aspect is the system of representative government. It conveys a clear picture of the procedure of state governance. If we try to understand democracy in the popular aspect, there is a possibility of underestimating the duties of the rest of the aspects. Therefore democracy has two other identifications. 

  1. The ideal model
  2. The methodology of governing

The ideal democracy

When democracy is identified as a collection of principles, set of values, or ideal models, it means the sovereignty of the citizens. The initial statements related to the sovereignty of citizens can be seen in ancient political literature. Political scientists are engaged in the debate of finding the origin of ideal democracy whether in India, the Middle East, or ancient Greek civilizations. “Kautilya’s Economics (312 BC – 296 BC) which has become popular in social media now a day’s explains the duties of a king in a monarchy and the service he should render for the betterment of the citizens. Most of the patriots pay their attention to “Kawtilya’s Economics” due to this reason. But this does not discuss the power that the citizens hold regarding the appointment of the monarchy and commands they would make. In the discussion of the ideal democracy, the political power of the citizens is paid more attention to. The definition of democracy was first worded as the principle of people’s sovereignty in Greek political literature. Below mentioned is an extract from the popular commemorative speech done by Perick Lish related to Sinian soldiers. This includes the Palafonisian history book of war written by Thasisidees (454 BC – 404/396 BC). “We call our governance democracy as it appreciates the participation of many instead of few. Our system of law is common to all irrespective of their personal status. If anyone has the desire of engaging in public service, the opportunity depends on their ability, not the social status. Social status or poverty does not disturb the talent.”

This concept about social sovereignty has been covered by the other political concepts developed in the medieval era. The power of monarchy which was hand in hand with the land-owning aristocratic class was challenged by the capitalistic middle class. As a political solution to this concept, political thinkers have introduced the representative governance and constitutionalism.. 

President Abraham Lincon is the only politician who spoke about this concept in an interesting way. He has spoken these words when he was opening the monument to commemorate the soldiers who die in Pennsylvania and Gatisburgh during the American Civil War (1891-1895) “The soldiers who died in this war did not die in vain. America is going o entertain a new type of freedom under Gods that becomes the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Here the word ‘Democracy’ was not used by Lincon and it was later attached to the statement.

This statement of Lincon can be identified as one of the major proverbs which guided democratic politics. On one hand, this statement suggests that democracy which was developed from the Greek era is not citizen-centered governance. It means that the power to rule a country is with the citizens of that country but not with the high-class society. The citizens have the power of appointing a set of citizens to rule the country depending on rules and regulations that they have established. Those appointed citizens rule the country just for the sake of the betterment of everybody. They do not embrace such positions with the intention of gaining special privileges depending on their social status, the geographical area they reside in, or the designations and social acceptance they gain. 

Did this political idealism become realistic with the right of voting introduced in the 19th century? The concept of citizen sovereignty was originated in the ancient era in which a lot of social anomalies were prevailing. It emerged again in the 19th century. Until mid 20th century, the women in the Greek era did not possess any the political rights. The right to vote was decided according to the ethnicity and properties of the citizens. In present these components have been removed as they weaken the power of sovereignty. Now, each citizen is entitled to have one vote.

The right to vote is the basic qualification to be appointed as a representative to the legislator or executioner. In the 21st century, all elections are considered to be free and fair. But it is difficult to state whether the elections protect the citizen sovereignty. Most of the political parties are trying to present their supporters as candidates in elections rather than citizens presenting themselves as individual candidates. Many businessmen are in a habit of spending money in large amounts to get their own preferred candidate to the position considering them as their slaves. Other than the above-mentioned reasons media channels being partial to certain political parties is also a major argument to find out whether the prevailing system of elections protect citizen sovereignty. 

Apart from the countries like Sri Lanka and India, most of the countries have a lack of trust on the right to vote. The generation that lived between 1946 and 1964 was much attracted to the right to vote. But majority of the present society being the youth shows a cold interest in politics and elections prevailing in the country. The major reason for that can be the transformation of representative democracy into party politics. But it is not an obstacle for the young generation to live with the sovereignty related to democracy. 

The democratic concept of citizen sovereignty provides us with the right of criticizing, questioning the rulers and discussing the ruling system with the president or prime minister. Such conversations that are happening in the orthodox society are not just dreams but they are the powers and elements to strengthen the democracy in a country.

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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