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Understanding Democracy – Analysis


Modern democracy is gradually taking shape between ancient legacies and adaptations to contemporary issues. Faced with the trials of history, modern democracies have experienced as many advances as setbacks. Competing authoritarian regimes and internal tensions question the democratic model.


Democracy is suffering, and its promise needs to be revived. Indeed, the added value, viability and future of democracy are being contested in a way that has not been in modern history, at least since the 1930s. 

If the last forty years have seen a remarkable expansion of democracy in all regions of the world, the last few years have been marked by the decline of the fabric of both old and young democracies. (1) The concept of democracy continues to mobilize people around the world, but its practice has disappointed and disillusioned many citizens and democracy advocates.

Ancient democracy

The invention of democracy in Greece

In the VIIIth century B.C. is founded the city-state of Athens, Athens is then governed by a group of aristocrats. The social crises and episodes of tyrannies push statesmen to associate the citizens with the political decisions. At the beginning of the Vth century BC, the wars against the Persians gave the people an essential role: their victories opened the golden age of the Athenian democracy. (2)

The foundations of the Athenian democracy are defined by equality before the law (isonomia); the freedom of political speech (isegoria); the powers of the popular Assembly (ecclesia) are reinforced.

Athens is a direct democracy in the sense that the magistrates are drawn by lot for one year among the citizens; the magistrates receive a “misthos“, financial allowance, allowing all the citizens to participate in public life. Decisions are taken by a show of hands in the Ecclesia.


This democratic principle is nevertheless limited, Athens is a closed democracy: women, children, foreigners and slaves are excluded and citizenship is limited to men of military age, free by birth and of purely Athenian parents. Only 10% of the Athenian population was part of the body of citizens (that is to say 40 000 citizens in the Vth century BC).

In Rome: A Republic without democracy

Rome modified its political system in 509 BC, the Republic (“res publica“, the public thing) replaces the royalty. It is a republic of aristocratic type led by magistrates appointed for one year in a collegial manner.

The most fortunate citizens participated in public affairs, the Comices (assemblies) where citizens are divided into tribes according to their wealth (5 censal classes). The first 2 classes vote first; the citizens of the other classes are not called. The most important annual magistracies are granted to the citizens of the 1st class. The members of the Senate, the highest Roman authority, came from the great aristocratic families.

If, as in Athens, a man born of a citizen father becomes a Roman citizen. However, in adulthood, citizenship is more open: It can be given to the inhabitants of the cities of the Empire, to the allied barbarian elites, and to the soldiers of auxiliary troops.

In 212, the emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free men of the Empire. Nevertheless, citizenship was more restricted and did not come with political rights. Birth and wealth remained the most important criteria for taking part in public affairs. Thus, democracy was never established in Rome. (3)

The foundations of modern democracy

1. Enlightenment and democratic ideals

In England, the Glorious Revolution (1688) marked the end of absolutism. (4) The introduction of the Bill of Rights (1689) (5) limited the power of the king and reaffirmed the authority of Parliament to control laws and taxes. Free elections are ensured, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people is established.

The English example nourished the Enlightenment. Philosophers criticize the absolute power of the king, arbitrariness, privileges of the nobility and the clergy. Denis Diderot (1713-1784), in the Encyclopaedia, (6) asserts that “no man has received from nature the right to command others“.

To guarantee this equality, John Locke (1632-1704) states the natural rights of man and evokes the existence of a “social contract” between men and the government. The former concede a part of their sovereignty to the latter freely, which in return guarantees these natural rights.

Later, Montesquieu (1689-1755) shows the necessity of separating powers, which if concentrated in the same hands, run the risk of authoritarian drift: “power stops power” (De l’Esprit des lois, XII-4). (7)

2. A state of law

For J. Locke, only the creation of a law shared and respected by all allows men to be free. Only a state governed by law can enforce this requirement. The constitution is the guarantor of fundamental rights with the establishment of an independent administrative authority verifying the conformity of laws. To enable everyone to assert his or her rights, all the authorities comply with these superior rules.

John Lock’s essay on “An Essay on Humane Understanding” dated 1690

This hierarchy of norms is one of the guarantees of the rule of law. The norms are only valid if they respect these higher rules. Such a model implies a judiciary that is independent of the legislative and executive powers.

3. Popular sovereignty

For Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) each citizen holds a share of this sovereignty, which is one and indivisible. It is expressed by the general will which results from the deliberation of all the assembled citizens. Rousseau is hostile to the representative system and to all that divides the sovereignty of the people. (8)

The idea of direct democracy runs up against many limits: if in Athens, the Ecclesia was able to assemble on the Pnyx hill (6,000 citizens out of 30 000 in the IVth century BC), the size of the modern states prevents the realization of this democratic ideal. Another limitation is the limited competence of the citizen. Rousseau recognizes that this perfect government is only suitable for a “people of gods“.

All democratic regimes proclaim the sovereignty of the people. The expression of this sovereignty passes by a right of vote for each citizen (universal suffrage) by which an imperative mandate is given to the elected. If the elected officials deviate from the will of the people, the voters can revoke it.

Kinds of democracy

To define what characterizes democracy today, we can start from the etymology of the word (demos = the people and kratos = power in Greek.) It is a principle and not a mode of government. However, it could be defined as, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” (9)

This definition has several consequences, such as the need to respect individual and collective freedoms. These freedoms, defined by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 and updated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, define the rights enjoyed by citizens, such as freedom of expression, opinion and demonstration. Democracy implies the existence of an active citizenship, based on equality between all. By citizens, we mean those who are able to participate in the life of the “city”, understood as a political community: the right to vote, to stand for election, etc.

Today, we can distinguish different types of democracies, of which the two main ones are 

Direct democracy: the people, understood as all citizens, govern directly. This is the model of Athenian citizenship as defined in the Vth century BC. 

Representative democracy: the people appoint representatives to govern on their behalf. This is the case in the vast majority of current democracies. 

Participatory democracy would be a mode of operation that would allow citizens to feel more involved in the political decisions made by taking the maximum number of decisions at the level closest to them.

The representative democracies that we know today are based on the notion of sovereignty of the people.  In France, Article 3 of the 1958 Constitution states that “national sovereignty belongs to the people, who exercise it through their representatives or by referendum [“la souveraineté nationale appartient au peuple qui l’exerce par la voie de ses représentants ou par referendum”]”. It also specifies that this sovereignty is “one and indivisible [“une et indivisible”]“.  Democracy is therefore opposed to authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes. In the latter, freedom is limited or even repressed and citizens are exposed to arbitrary political decisions.      

The totalitarianisms of the XXth century (Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism) (10) have disappeared, and today we see varying forms of authoritarian regimes: closed dictatorships such as in North Korea, or more liberal ones such as in China, which are totalitarian regimes – whose objective is to install, in the name of an ideology, political, cultural and economic domination – or “dictocracies” such as in Russia or Turkey. By this we mean regimes which, under the appearance of democracies (maintaining elections, semblance of a multiparty system, etc.) in reality function as dictatorships.  The democratic functioning regularly experiences crises and questioning which regularly require rethinking.

Advances and setbacks of democracies 

1.  Tocqueville’s concern: from democracy to tyranny?  

A political analysis Alexis de Tocqueville was not initially a supporter of democracy. He rather believes in a form of society led by enlightened elites, considering that election by universal suffrage means the tyranny of the majority. In On Democracy in America (1835 – 1840), (11) he shows that the rule of law and individual liberties go hand in hand with economic and social progress.  He emphasizes the importance of multipartyism and local involvement.  But he fears that this system will eventually lead to the atomization of society, with each individual following his or her own interests, and the seizure of power by a despot.   

2. The democratic experiment of Salvador Allende in Chile

Salvador Allende’s government represented the failure of the left to come to power in Chile, which faced a double challenge: on the one hand, a revolutionary movement calling for a radical transformation, and on the other, conservative parties supported by the United States, in a context of the Cold War. Allende’s choice to respect the rights of the conservative opposition and to keep his trust in the chiefs of staff would probably prove fatal.  The army was preparing to overthrow the government: a first military coup failed on June 29, 1973, while a second succeeded on September 11, resulting in Allende’s assassination and the rise to power of the extreme right-wing regime of General Augusto Pinochet. This example shows the fragility of democratic systems when they do not have a stable foundation. 

3. From authoritarian rule to democracy: Portugal and Spain from 1974 to 1982 

The examples of Portugal and Spain are those of a peaceful democratic transition in two different contexts.  On the one hand, there was a slow exit from the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal and the death of Franco in Spain. In Portugal, the Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974, was an example of a coup d’état with a democratic project, massively supported by the people and organized within the army.  The adoption of the Constitution of April 2, 1976, marked the end of a complex transition process and the beginning of a parliamentary regime, culminating in Portugal’s accession to the EEC in 1986. In Spain, after the death of the Caudillo, the newly legalized left-wing opposition began discussions with Franco’s successors, who agreed to modernize the country and accept the role of the king and the monarchy. However, the period was marked by authoritarian upheavals until the coup d’état of February 23, 1981, the last gasp of a Franco regime on the verge of extinction.

Fake democracy

A new form of democracy emerged at the turn of the century with the rise to power of Putin in Russia, followed by Erdogan in Turkey: these two regimes are emblematic of the authoritarian democracy that has taken shape today in some European and American countries. (12) This power is democratic in the sense that it derives its legitimacy from the ballot box: Putin and Erdogan have been elected and re-elected, and no one disputes the popularity of the two leaders. That is where the analogy ends; that is also where the perversity of this regime lies. For the façade of democracy masks the inexorable erosion of public freedoms, the side-lining of the checks and balances necessary for the functioning of democracy, all of which leads to an absence of citizen awareness and space for public debate, and finally to the absence of political alternation since all access to power is locked up by the current leader.

The Russian regime corrupts at will. “There are three ways to act on men: blackmail, vodka and the threat of assassination” says Putin. (13) The Putin regime represses when threats are not enough and kills when repression does not work. It suppresses all dissent, puts a tentacular mark on society which, as an autonomous entity, no longer exists. This is an old recipe of an autocrat disguised as a democrat: the people are only sovereign in the vote; once they have voted, all sovereignty returns to the government, the people having given up their freedom. Moreover, he plays the people against the elites, following a logic of physical and moral violence. 

In discussing the political systems of Russia and Turkey, Dimitar Bechev and Suat Kınıklıoğlu argue in article entitled:“Turkey and Russia: No Birds of the Same Feather” and published in SWP: (14)

“…the unnerving similarities between Turkey and Russia. In 2018, the international watchdog Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “partly free” to “not free”. Russia was demoted back in 2004, at the end of Putin’s first term. Constitutional changes in Turkey, in force since 2018, transferred all essential powers to President Erdoğan. Checks on the executive branch, from the media all the way to parliament, have been dismantled. In Russia, Putin has amended the constitution so as to be eligible to rule for another two six-year terms after 2024. Expectations that he might cede power, step by step, to a successor have evaporated. “

And they go on to say:

“Yet, Turkey is, and will remain, different from Russia. It has a relatively more competitive political system shaped by decades of democratic development. The strength of the opposition, the structure of the economy, and the nature of linkages to the West make it unlikely that Turkey will consolidate an authoritarian system resembling Russia’s. Ankara is not coming into Moscow’s geopolitical orbit either. It still has a strong interest in maintaining links with the EU and the US instead of membership in a league of autocrats. What Erdoğan does – similar to his role model Sultan Abdulhamid II – is play Russia against the West, and vice versa, in pursuit of maximum strategic autonomy. “

The spring of authoritarian democracy is quite different: “[…] men are afraid of the Power that can strike them; the Power is afraid of the men who can revolt“. (15) Putin and Erdogan are in the Machiavellian logic of power: it is better to be feared than loved. (16) Everything is and must be subordinated to power. These two autocrats, shady (they distrusts everything and everyone), aggressive (Putin massacres the Chechens and Erdogan, the Kurds), gluttonous (they shamelessly absorbs all other powers). Such a regime loses its democratic essence and turns into an autocracy. In power since 2000, Putin alternates only with his alter ego Medvedev. In power since 2003, Erdogan has replaced the Kemalist heritage with an Islamic caliphate made to his measure and subject to his grip.

For a long time, good old liberal democracy had only dictatorship as a rival: at least one knew what one was dealing with. Today, it has to deal with a form of power that is related to it, but with which the links are those of an incestuous and distorted family.

The values of democracy

1. Civic equality

Democracy implies first of all civic equality. (17) In a democracy, all citizens are subject to the same laws and are distinguished from one another only by their merit. Poverty should therefore not prevent anyone from taking part in the life of the city. The aim is not to ensure the same resources for all citizens but to guarantee the equality of all before the law through the impartiality of justice. This is what we call the rule of law. (18)

2. The separation of powers

Democracy also implies freedom. It is the recognized and guaranteed freedom of all citizens, even the most modest, that guarantees the existence of a democratic space in the city. Ensuring the fundamental freedoms of the individual is therefore one of the conditions for the existence of democracy. This is the purpose of the separation of the three powers (18):  the power to make laws (legislative), the power to apply them (executive) and the power to enforce them (judicial). If two of these powers become confused, as was the case under the monarchy, the freedom of citizens, and democracy, can be threatened. This is why democracy has oversight bodies such as the Constitutional Council in France.

3. Political pluralism

Finally, democracy implies that political life is organized in such a way as to allow the expression of all opinions: this is political pluralism. It is expressed through the holding of free elections during which the people elect their representatives by means of universal, equal and secret suffrage. This is the system of representative democracy.

Current issues in the democratic debate

1. The defense of democracy

Democracy is fragile. (20) It must be constantly defended and consolidated, as shown today by such important issues as the accumulation of elective mandates or corruption in political parties; for democracy cannot accept the concentration of all powers in the hands of a few political “specialists” nor the misappropriation of public money for private or political purposes. Another question, perhaps even more serious, is that of the independence of judges from the authorities: judges are the guarantors of freedoms and equality before the law; if a government can slow down or stifle a trial, it is because democracy is not yet functioning perfectly.

2. The extension of democracy

Democracy must also constantly expand because its principle is the emancipation of mankind. Yesterday, women were granted the right to vote; today, we wish to impose an equal number of women and men among the representatives of the people.

Yesterday, the age of civil majority was lowered to 18; today, there is talk of giving the right to vote to 16 year olds for municipal elections.

Yesterday, it was accepted that nationals of other European Union countries could vote on French territory in European or municipal elections; today, some people are arguing for allowing all foreign citizens to vote in municipal elections.

The fight for democracy will last as long as human rights are not respected everywhere and by everyone.

Democracy as an ideal

This democratic ideal of government by the people (and not only for the people, for example by an enlightened monarch) is thus based on the participation of the citizens in the government of the city, each citizen having an equal right to this political participation of which he is normally the beneficiary, the finality.

This ideal of the greatest possible participation of the governed in political decisions is well defined by Hans Kelsen (21) for whom “democracy is the tendency to identify the governors and the governed“. (22)

But this identification is only tendential. It is then necessary to distinguish between direct democracy and representative democracy. It should be remembered that democracy is not a universal and unchanging ideal either in space (less than half of the states in the world today) or in time.

Indeed, it has known sometimes very long eclipses: more than one thousand years between its “invention” by ancient Greece and its rediscovery in Europe in the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries by the philosophers of the “Enlightenment” (23) through the modern idea that the political power proceeds from a social contract between men themselves, which affirms the fundamental freedom of the individuals, repudiating thus any meta-social conception of the political power (the monarchy of divine right). In this sense, democracy is synonymous with popular sovereignty (24) and the “government of oneself by oneself“.

 There were also particularly dramatic eclipses (the “return of barbarism” by the fascisms and totalitarianisms of the interwar period in the XXth century), showing well the historical fragility of the democratic construction. 

The democratic society also rests on the idea of citizenship which postulates an equality of the individuals in dignity and in rights, what justifies then the access of each to the political participation. This idea of the equality of individuals as citizens (25) is indeed modern: it was born in England from the XVIth century before being officially affirmed at the end of the XVIIIth century by the American Constituents and the French revolutionaries; it will finally receive its letters of nobility by the writings of A. de Tocqueville in the XIXth century. 

As for universal suffrage, which is one of its expressions, it will only be implemented gradually. For example, in France, it was not until 1848 that universal suffrage was granted (limited, however, to men); 1945 that it was extended to women; and 1974 that it was granted to young people over 18.

As Dominique Schnapper (26) puts it: 

citizenship is a creative utopia in which the objective differences that separate individuals are erased in front of their equality in terms of rights and political participation“.

These democratic principles, because they are lived as desirable, will be desired by certain political actors (the citizens and the political parties) and will gradually be embodied in the facts, in the political institutions. 

The anti-models of democracy: authoritarian and totalitarian regimes

We can also try to better understand democracy a contrario by analyzing its anti-models: authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. However, there too, the terminology sometimes floats. Indeed, in everyday language, the terms authoritarian, dictatorial or totalitarian regimes are frequently used together. However, political science makes a clear distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Hence the question: Authoritarian or totalitarian regimes?

Totalitarian regimes were theorized by H. Arendt (in “the totalitarian phenomenon”, a translation of her work The origins of totalitarianism, 1951) (27) and are represented for her by the Nazi regime and the Stalinist regime: certainly, if the two regimes have different goals (emancipatory and universal project for communism, of which Stalinism claimed to be a part, and projects of domination by the “Aryans” for Nazism), they use however the same means of control of the population and finally have the same objective consequences of enslavement of the individuals. However, we will rather speak of totalitarian regimes, in the plural, to take these differences into account.

For H. Arendt, totalitarianism is a new and unprecedented phenomenon of the XXth century, and is distinguished by five features:

1- An official ideology covering all aspects of individual and collective life and promising a perfect society by denial and rejection of the present state (what R. Aron  called “secular religions”, of millenarian essence: see the promises of “the end of the class struggle” or of a “Reich for 1000 years”). As such, there is no longer a border between public and private life, both of which are encompassed by the total ideology;

2- A unique party, carrier of the ideology, and directed by a dictator;

3- The monopoly of the means of information and propaganda;

4- A terror ensured by the political police cracking down on the designated adversary, but also on whole portions of the population (“mass terror”), and;

5- A systematic atomization of society and an isolation of the individual, by the destruction of the primary and intermediate groups (families, trade unions, churches, etc.) by replacing them by a partisan mobilization since the youngest childhood.

We see thus that totalitarianism does not aim only at a passive and external obedience like the authoritarian (or dictatorial) regimes: it requires and organizes in addition an adhesion of all the individuals and of all the moments. These regimes cannot tolerate and integrate the opposition, the conflict, and are thus, paradoxically, fragile: There is an effort of total and forced mobilization of the individuals, on all the fronts, gigantic effort which “devours” the regime, until the destruction, which explains that these do not last very long and are annihilated either by military defeat like Nazi Germany, or by implosion, like the Stalinist USSR.


Democracy can only be understood in the lived experience, because everything is constantly changing: democracy is a flexible concept and in perpetual evolution, just like the society it accompanies. It is the political principle which affirms the primacy of the equality between all the citizens, the safeguard of their individual and collective freedom, the importance of their emancipation, and the necessity to imagine institutions to guarantee this. Thus, if democracy in its central principles is a simple notion, its implementation is, infinitely more difficult. This being said, democracy nowadays is regularly questioned. If only because of the closer relations between states but also by the ever more prevalent challenges.

Democratic regimes are organized according to the principle of separation – a word to which I prefer the term “balance” – balance of powers. The legislature is responsible for drafting and passing laws, while the executive power implements laws and conducts national policy. It is therefore only natural that the executive and the legislature work together as equals to make the law for the good of the people.

However, we note that the executive is increasingly placed at the center of the stage, at the risk of pushing back the elected of the Nation in the rank of spectators. We must prevent parliaments from seeing their role reduced to that of simple registration chambers and remember that countries are called democracies thanks, among others, to parliaments. Democratic parliaments, i.e. parliaments that are representative, effective and open, i.e. transparent, accessible and accountable to citizens. Parliaments that act for the good of the citizens who elected them. Parliaments committing themselves to ensuring better, safer and more prosperous life for their peoples. Truly democratic parliaments.

Democracy is said to be “government of the people, by the people and for the people“. The people, this collective group, is plural: it is made up of men and women, young and old. By analogy, the parliament, too, must be the sum total of the differences that create a nation for truly represent the people. Ultimately, parliament must be the mirror of society, of the whole of society in its diversity, I would even say its diversities. It must therefore be inclusive and representative, and to do this it must be composed of women and men with geographical, ethnic or religious specificities, or with distinct political interests or views. Without this diversity, parliamentary debate, and therefore the democracy, cannot exist.

Currently, citizens around the world are calling for more transparency and openness and are asking to be involved in decisions. Under no circumstances should these requests be viewed as a threat. On the contrary, this demonstrates the desire of the peoples, their aspiration to build together, to participate, to understand, to express themselves. It is, ultimately, the expression of great maturity in the face of current challenges. And responding positively to this aspiration is a source of vitality for democracies.

Democracy allows people to pull the rug out from under populism and isolationism and those who seek to undermine proven multilateralism. Democracy must allow the nation to put the human person back at the center of global governance.

Is democracy in danger? No, if by that one mean sa threat of his disappearance. Its capacity adaptation, perpetual questioning, its resilience, and its flexibility have proven themselves over the years. It is able to meet the current challenges insofar as men and women, processes and institutions and structures responsible for leading it are committed to always taking into account the real aspirations and concerns of the people. It is in this sense that democracy is not an end in itself, but an instrument at the service of humanity.

Salient recommendations

Democracy is like a tree that needs constant care to grow and prosper. It has to be nurtured constantly, watered, pruned, and provided with necessary nutrients, etc…to stay in good health. In this regard the following recommendations are to be taken seriously to defend and preserve democracy from decay, corruption and misuse:

  • Approach political participation with seriousness and innovation.
  • Ensure that representation mechanisms are inclusive and exclude no one.
  • Strengthen the institutions that control the executive branch, including the legislature, but also the courts and media. 
  • Ensure that policies address the polarization of society.
  • Invest in civic education and digital media literacy.
  • Participate in strengthening civil society organizations working on democracy and human rights issues in contexts where these issues are threatened.
  • Increase the integrity and transparency of political institutions.
  • Improve the transparency of political finance.
  • Protect new democratic institutions from the popular discontent that often arises when the high expectations associated with their creation are disappointed.
  • Ensure that governments protect people from the disruptions of economic crises and globalization.
  • Support a free, diverse and critical media.
  • Evaluate the ins and outs of technological developments. 
  • Protect democratic advances against risks.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu


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  21.  Hans Kelsen, born on October 11, 1881 in Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and died on April 19, 1973 in Orinda, California, was an Austrian-American jurist, son of a Jewish family from Bohemia and Galicia. In the field of law, he is at the origin of the “Pure Theory of Law”. He is the founder of normativism and the principle of the hierarchy of norms. Hans Kelsen belongs to the movement of legal positivism, which opposes jusnaturalism by claiming to objectively describe any legal system, without appealing to moral values extrinsic to the law.
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  28.  Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron, known as Raymond Aron, born on March 14, 1905 in Paris 6e and died on October 17, 1983 (aged 78) in the same city, was a French philosopher, sociologist, political scientist, historian and journalist.

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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