What is democracy?

Last updated: 3 10 2018

Image Boken om Sverige
This material is from the book About Sweden.

The word democracy comes from Greek and means something similar to "government by the people". Issues relating to democracy have been discussed for several thousand years, but there is no definition of the term on which everybody in the world would agree. This is partly due to democracy being something that is constantly being developed and altered. However, there are some things that many can agree are related to democracy, for example the equal dignity and rights of all people, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press and freedom of expression, that all are equal in the eyes of the law and that free elections are held.

In a democratic society with general, free elections, people with the right to vote can vote for the party and the politicians they want to represent them in political decision-making at the national, regional and local level. The politicians or parties that receive the most votes, i.e. a majority of the votes, are those that are allowed to have the biggest say in decision-making.

The elected politicians represent the voters and are the system is therefore called representative democracy. Representative democracies are now a common form of government in the world and this is the system we have in Sweden.

Although it is the majority that decides in a democracy, the minority have rights that the majority cannot simply ignore. One fundamental principle in a democratic society is that power is exercised with respect for human rights. This means that those who make decision may not oppress people or groups that have opinions that are different to their own. Everyone in society has the right to say what they think.

General elections are a country's inhabitants' most important means by which to influence how the country is governed. If democracy in a country is to work, the country's inhabitants have to be involved and participate in its democratic processes. Democracy is strengthened by as many people as possible voting in general elections, as well as by factors such as people joining charities or participating in political discussions with friends and colleagues. It also becomes stronger through such actions as people joining voluntary organisations, getting involved in political discussions with friends and colleagues or contacting politicians in various ways to express their point of view. If a large proportion of the country's inhabitants vote, it becomes more certain that the policies enacted are those the majority actually want.

However, in order for a society to be democratic, it is not sufficient simply for its inhabitants to take part in general elections. What happens between the elections is also important for democracy to function.

Democracy is also dependent on there being respectful discussion. This involves both listening to what others think and expressing your own opinions. It is important that a country's inhabitants feel they are part of society if democracy is to function. They have to have an influence in general elections, but they also have to feel they have the opportunity to influence their everyday lives – in school, at work, in the area they live and in their own family.

Getting involved discussions with other people about what is democratic or not is itself an important aspect of a democratic society. If this discussion ceases, this may indicate that many people think democracy is no longer important, which may be a sign that democracy is becoming weaker.

The question of whether democracy is good or bad has been discussed since the idea was first envisaged. There are those who argue that a democratic system is not always as fast or efficient as a dictatorship in which the person making the decisions can quickly force through their decisions. In a democracy, everyone has to have their say, people must compromise and vote in order to make decisions. Consequently, it has even been decided in democratic countries that in certain extreme situations democracy can step aside in favour of efficiency and speed. Quite simply, in emergency situations it can be necessary for those in charge to make quick decisions in order to prevent the situation becoming worse.

There are many examples of non-democratic forms of government that have oppressed and terrorised people. In dictatorships, people can be put in prison or in concentration camps because of the opinions they hold or because they belong to a certain ethnic group. History shows that democratic government is the form of government that best protects individuals' freedom and human rights. It also shows that democracy and peace often prevail when people in different countries are in contact and engage in trade with one another.