Bernard Crick (2000) has pointed out that democracy is the most promiscuous of political terms. In the sense that the word means different. things to different people, democracy is an example of an ‘essentially contested’ concept.
A particular model or form of democracy has come to dominate thinking on the matter, to the extent that many in the West treat it as the only feasible or meaningful form of democracy, This is liberal democracy.
It is found in almost all advanced capitalist societies and now extends, in one form or another, into parts of the former communist world and the developing world.
The ‘liberal’ element in liberal democracy emerged historically some time before such states could genuinely be described as democratic.
A liberal state is based upon the principle of limited government, the idea that the individual should enjoy some measure of protection from the state. From the liberal perspective, government is a necessary evil, always liable to become a tyranny against the individual if government power is not checked.
Liberal democracies, moreover, respect the existence of a vigorous and healthy civil society, based upon respect for civil liberties and property rights. Liberal-democratic rule therefore typically coexists with a capitalist economic order.
The ‘democratic’ element in liberal democracy is the idea of popular consent, expressed in practice through the act of voting. Liberal democracy is thus a form of electoral democracy, in that popular election is seen as the only legitimate source of political authority.
Such elections must, however, respect the principle of political equality; they must be based upon universal suffrage and the idea of ‘one person one vote’.
For this reason, any system that restricts voting rights on grounds of gender, race, religion, economic status or whatever, fails the democratic test. Finally, in order to be fully democratic, elections must be regular, open and, above all, competitive. The core of the democratic process is the capacity of the people to call politicians to account.
Government is entrusted to professional politicians, but these politicians are forced to respond to popular pressures by the simple fact that the public put them there in the first place, and can later remove them.
the virtues of elite rule – government by experts, the educated or well-informed – are balanced against the need for public accountability. Indeed, such a view implies that in liberal democracies political power is ultimately wielded by voters at election time. The voter exercises the same power in the political market as the consumer does in economic markets.
PRINCIPLES OF LIBERAL DEMOCRACY
Government by Consent
- Democracy is government by consent of the people. Rational consent can be obtained by persuasion for which an atmosphere of free discussion is essential.
- Any regime where the consent of the people is sought to be obtained without freedom of expression of divergent opinions, does not qualify for being called a ‘democracy’ even if it maintains certain democratic institutions.
- In view of the highly technical nature, the large volume and urgency of governmental decisions, it is impractical to consult the people on every detail of every policy. However, discussion of the broad issues is indispensable.
- Discussion is usually held at two levels: (a) among the representatives of the people in the legislative assemblies where members of the opposition have their full say; and
- (b) at the public level where there is direct communication between the leadership and the people. Mass media (newspapers, radio, television, etc.) also serve as effective channels of communication between the leadership and the people.
- Democratic leadership is expected not to lose touch with popular sentiment on the major outlines of policy as the ruling parties are bound to seek a fresh mandate of the people at regular intervals.
- Liberal democracy, based on the consent of the people, must constantly remain answerable to the people who created it.
- in order to prevent the abuse of their power, governors should be directly accountable to an electorate who will frequently check whether their objectives have been reasonably met.
In modern representative democracies, decisions are taken in several bodies’ legislatures, committees, cabinets and executive or regulative bodies.
Majority rule means that in all these decision-making bodies, from the electorate to the last committee, the issues are to be resolved by voting.
Political equality is secured by the principle of ‘one man, one vote’, which implies that there will be neither privileged sections claiming special weight age, nor any underprivileged sections whose voice is ignored.
No discrimination is allowed on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, ownership of property, and even educational qualifications. Any restriction of suffrage should be based on sound reason, that is where the ballot cannot be used in a rational and responsible manner, such as in the case of convicted criminals, mental patients, and persons below a legally fixed age.
Recognition of Minority Rights
- The principle of majority rule by no means implies the suppression of minorities. In modern nation-states, there may be several racial, religious, linguistic or cultural minorities who fear discrimination or the tyranny of the majority.
- Minority grievances may take many forms ranging from psychological insults over discrimination in housing, education and employment to physical persecution and genocide.
- Legal safeguards are, therefore, considered essential for the realization of the democratic principle because their presence helps to raise the level of awareness of both majority and minority and thus promote a favorable climate for democratic politics.
- Constitutional government means a ‘government by laws’ rather than by men. Democracy requires an infinitely complex machinery of processes, procedures and institutions to translate the majority will into action. It makes enormous demands on the time, goodwill and integrity of its citizens and public servants.
Liberal democracy works on certain principles and certain mechanisms. Broadly speaking, principles of liberal democracy include: (a) Government by consent; (b) Public accountability; (c) Majority rule; (d) Recognition of minority rights; and (e) Constitutional Government.