DIFFERENCES IN THEORY AND PRACTICE, BETWEEN DIRECT AND REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
15th, September, 2013
Democratic governments are those that include their citizens in the process of governance, either directly or indirectly. This type of government is different from that where governance and decision-making is a responsibility of a few individuals, or where a few individuals, who are high-ranking in the country, are solely responsible for all decision-making. In the world today, various countries have adopted democratic governance, where citizens are allowed to participate in governance. However, there are different types of democracies, and each country adopts one depending on their political nature and needs. The different types of democracies vary in the level in which citizens are allowed to participate in governance. Most countries in the world have adopted representative governance, where citizens elect leaders of their choice to represent them at the state level, and be responsible for making important decisions on their behalf. On the other hand, if a country adopts direct democracy, the citizens themselves participate in governance directly. Fossedal (2005) notes that the original element of democracy is believed to have originated in Athens in 5th Century BC, and the type of democracy adopted in this country was direct democracy. This paper will address the nature of representative democracies and direct democracies, and establish the differences between these two forms of democracies.
According to Manin (1997) all democracies must fulfil the four main principles of democracy, in order to be regarded as true democracies. However, the magnitude to which the different democratic systems uphold these democratic principles vary from one democracy to another. Nonetheless, any democratic system must ensure that its citizens are entitled to justice. A democratic government will therefore, play the role of safeguarding people’s justice, and ensuring that all its citizens are treated in a just manner. Secondly, democratic governments should ensure that all citizens experience equity in the country, and that no citizen is given priority over another. In addition, the freedoms of people are crucial in democratic governance. Citizens in a democratic government will therefore, live and act without any interference from the government or fellow citizens. Finally, there is the aspect of representation. This however, mostly applies to a representative democracy, where the majority of people choose their representatives through elections. These will be responsible or representing the majority in governance (Manin 1997). Although these elements of democracy are found in both representative and direct democracies, they vary in the way in which they are applied in governance. For instance, in representative democracies, it is the responsibility of the representatives to make important decisions in governance, while in direct democracies; the people themselves participate in decision-making on core functions in governance.
According to Beedham (n.d), many countries have adopted representative democracy, compared to direct democracies. In representative democracies, a part of the citizens comprises the eligible voters. These qualify to vote at different state levels, as they have attained the right age, among other conditions. The voters then vote in political leaders of their choice, who will represent them at the state level. This factor of representation varies in representative and direct democracies. The elected individuals in representative democracies serve as officials in the government, and hold positions in the parliament or senate, among others. While in these positions, these are expected to serve the interests of the larger population, which elected them to those positions (Manin 1997). On the contrary, in direct democracies, citizens do not need to be represented by an elected minority in government. Instead, the process of decision-making in governance is open to all citizens, who participate without any favouritism. While representatives sit together in parliament to discuss issues affecting their people and how to address them, in direct democracies, all citizens in a country sit together, mention their different concerns, develop ways of addressing them, and reaching a final decision on how to handle their concerns (‘UNDESA’ 2005).
Of all the countries in the world, there is only one, which allows for direct democracy for their people in all its state levels. Fossedal (2005) has identified Switzerland as a country that has embraced direct democracy, and this has proved to serve this country well, considering the level of political maturity and equity experienced in Switzerland. In Switzerland, direct democracy is offered at various levels of governance, including the federal level, the state level, and the communal level. Another aspect in Switzerland, which points to its adoption of direct democracy is the degree of its fiscal decentralization. If we compare fiscal decentralization in other countries such as Germany, and Austria, the fiscal decentralization in Switzerland comes out to be stronger than that of other countries (Fossedal 2005). In Switzerland, the different levels of the state have their own different sources of tax. This therefore, shows that in Switzerland, the citizens, even at the local level of the state, have the power to influence the budget, unlike in other democracies, where there is no fiscal decentralization. Apart from fiscal decentralization, all the citizens of Switzerland participate in the process of law making, and collectively engage in the process of determining the constitutionality of different laws in the country. Additionally, the constitution in Switzerland was developed and written collectively by all citizens (Fossedal 2005).
According to Kessler (2005), direct democracy embraces the communication, information, as well as manipulation. In direct democracy, it is essential that citizens in the country be informed of any major political development in the country. This is because, when citizens are informed, they are competent enough to participate in mature decision-making in the different political procedures in which they participate. If citizens are not well informed, they might make wrong decisions, which could be detrimental to their country, considering the fact that citizens have a great influence on governance (Kessler 2005).
The nature of the legislature in representative and direct democracies is another differentiating factor between the two types of democracies. In the representative democracies, the political leaders who are elected to hold different positions in government office are the ones that form the legislature in the country. Here, these representatives are responsible for raising the concerns of their people, and making important decisions in the government. On the other hand, in direct democracies, all citizens in the country are part of the legislature. This is because they are equally involved in important decision-making in the country (Kessler 2005).
Although most people are inclined to direct democracies, representative democracies are more popular, and it is expected that these will remain for a longer period to come, compared to direct democracies. Countries, which use representative democracies, include the USA, Britain, among others. In Britain, the majority people choose their representatives through voting, and these are given the title of ‘members of parliament.’ These are responsible for making decisions on different issues that affect citizens. They do this on behalf of those people who elected them to their positions (Pilkington 1997).
Although direct democracy is an important tool of democracy and governance, as shown in the case of Switzerland, different critics have pointed out that this could be ineffective in a country, due to various reasons. First, in direct democracy, it is the right of the citizens to participate in the major decision-making processes in their countries’ governance. Therefore, critics of direct democracy consider it to result in slow development of a country. Since different people are involved in decision-making, this slows down the process of decision-making in the country. Some critics also associate direct democracy with limited chances of innovation (Fossedal 2005).
Nonetheless, the supporters of direct democracy consider it to result in an improved state of democracy in a country, compared to the other types of democracies. In addition, direct democracy makes citizens to be more liberal since these participate in decision-making at different levels, including their influence in how the public financial resources are utilized. It is therefore, argued that direct democracy results in citizens, who are well informed, and who participate in state politics at a higher degree. In addition, direct democracy has the capability of influencing economic development positively, as the management of finances is practiced in a more transparent manner (Fossedal 2005).
In representative democracies, it is more likely that the decisions made by the representatives will not in all cases serve the interests of the majority, as opposed to direct democracies, where decisions are made by the citizens themselves and will always serve their interests. In representative governments, crucial issues in the country are solely left to the representatives to determine and decide. These representatives come up with solutions and decisions, which most of the time do not serve the interests of the people who elected them. For instance, while most citizens in a representative democracy would detest the involvement of their country in war and disputes, their representatives might decide to engage in war for various reasons. A case in point is the Iran and Afghanistan wars, in which different countries have gotten involved. The USA and Britain have participated in this, although most of their citizens would have wished otherwise (Pilkington 1997). On the other hand, since the inception of direct democracy in Athens, the citizens themselves were responsible for making major decisions in the country. Therefore, in a direct democracy, it is rare for important decisions made in the country to not favour the citizens, since it is they that make the decisions.
Another difference between representative democracies and direct democracies bases on the nature of political party system. In many representative democracies, the element of multi-partism is evident (Leduc 2003). These different parties have their own differing ways of operation. These also differ in opinions about governance, and have different priorities. This case is different from that in direct democracy. In an ideal direct democracy, there should be a one-part system. The one political party will be neutral and have uniform agenda, priorities, and opinions, which are identical to those of the citizens (Leduc 2003). This is unlike the representative democracies, where the citizens are required to choose one political party among the many parties, which they will identify with. This phenomenon therefore, raises concerns about the nature of democracy in representative democracies. In an ideal democracy, it is the people, who have a right to participate in deciding on the various policies they would like to see in their country. However, when policies are drawn from political parties, this shows that the citizens had little or no participation in policy-making. Direct democracy on the other hand, scores high on this aspect, as all citizens participate in policy-making (Leduc 2003).
In representative democracies, sometimes the personal agendas of the ruling class override the interests of the citizens, and their perceptions of what is right for them and for their country (Pilkington 1997). However, in direct democracies, before the implementation of any important policy in the country, the citizens are allowed to scrutinize it and vote in their favour, depending on whether they want the policy to be implemented or not. If most of the citizens vote in support of a specific policy to be implemented, then that policy will be adopted, considering the majority of citizens voted for it. Therefore, more democracy is witnessed in direct democracies, as compared to representative democracies (Pilkington 1997).
In direct democracies, it is quite a challenge to control the whole political process, where each citizen is involved in decision-making. In order for effectiveness in governance, the citizens in direct democracies need to be well informed and intelligent, in order to make decisions that will be developmental to their country. It is therefore, apparent that the process of decision-making in direct democracies is slower than decision-making in representative democracies. In direct democracies, there is a large number of people involved in decision-making (‘UNDESA’ 2005). This therefore, slows the speed with which decisions will be arrived at, thus consuming much time. On the other hand, decision-making in representative democracies take a shorter time compared to direct democracies. The reason behind this is that, the minority individuals in a country, who are the representatives, are responsible for important decisions in the country, and do not involve the majority, whom they claim to represent. Therefore, since these are few in number, they will spend less time on decision-making. For this reason, it is argued that direct democracy can only be effective in a country where the population is very low, but representative democracy is effective in a highly populated country. However, with increased and advanced information technology today, it is possible for direct democracy to be exercised even in countries with a high population (Beedham n.d).
Unlike in representative democracies, all citizens in direct democracies have the privilege of influencing the process of governance directly. These citizens participate directly in elections and referendums in their country (Leduc 2003). In direct democracy therefore, there is the devolution of political power, as all citizens participate in governance, and not only a few individuals, as in the case of representative democracy. In addition, in direct democracy the citizens are guaranteed that the decisions they make are beneficial to all of them, and not to a minority section in the country, as is the case in representative democracies, where most decisions favour the few, who are in the ruling class at the expense of the majority population. On the other hand, representative democracy is considered an indirect democracy, as citizens do not participate directly because their elected representatives represent them (Leduc 2003).
Some countries such as the United States of America, apart from being representative democracies, have also embraced direct democracy, but in a partial manner. In the USA, close to 25 of the states use referendums to take action, when the majority feel that their representatives are not effective in a particular area of governance (Tolbert & Smith 2006). Although citizens have desired that referendums be pushed to the federal level, this has proven difficult to attain. In direct democracy, there is the element referred to as a ‘recall.’ Here, the citizens have the right to demand that a leader relinquishes their position, if they feel that the leader is not performing well in that particular position. This is an aspect of direct democracy, which some parts of the USA have also adopted. For instance, the state of California recalled their governor and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as their new governor, based on performance issues (Tolbert & Smith 2006). However, this is a weak aspect of direct democracy, as it does not directly influence the most important processes in governance, such as law making, the way referendums do.
Generally, it is possible to liken an ideal direct democracy to the traditional theory of democracy, which is also known as the majoritarian theory of democracy. This theory, which was coined by Dalh Robert, posits that a democracy should bear the value of equality in its voting process. Additionally, there must be effective participation of citizens in the process of governance. Another principle is that of an enlightened understanding by citizens on governance issues as well as their inclusion, and finally the citizens should have a voice in the national agenda (Dalh 1989). An ideal direct democracy satisfies all these conditions.
On the other hand, most representative democracies today can be analysed using the pluralist theory of democracy. In this theory, it is argued that in a democracy, a group of individuals who come in power have common interests, and therefore, will rule in a way that favours them, and other wealthy people in society, forgetting about the majority. Most representative democracies today have failed, as the representatives once elected, do not represent the majority of people in parliament, but serve their own selfish interests. This is why most opponents of representative democracies argue that countries should adopt direct democracy, which is fairer than the representative democracy (Tolbert & Smith 2006).
In conclusion, representative democracy and direct democracy are important forms of democracy used in the governance of different countries. However, as seen, most countries have adopted the representative democracy, where a few individuals are elected by the majority to act as their representatives at the national level. On the other hand, in direct democracy, all citizens participate in governance and in the decision-making in important issues in their country. These two forms of democracy have different factors that differentiate them. This is mainly the factors of representation, and participation of citizens in governance, among others. Nonetheless, despite their differences, these two democracies have their specific weaknesses, which make one to be preferred over the other. Although representative democracy has been criticized for its many weaknesses compared to direct democracy, many countries have adopted it today.
‘UNDESA’ 2005, Direct & Representative Democracy: Are They Necessarily Opposed? International Conference of Engaging Communities, Viewed 15 March 2013 <http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/un/unpan021106.pdf>
Beedham, B n.d, The Case for Direct Democracy, Viewed 15 March 2013,
Dalh, R 1989 Democracy and Its Critics, Yale University Press, New York.
Fossedal, G 2005, Direct Democracy in Switzerland, Transaction Publishers, New York.
Kessler, A 2005, Representative versus direct democracy, Public Choice, 122: 9-38, Viewed 15 March 2013 <http://www.parliament.wa.gov.au/intranet/libpages.nsf/WebFiles/ITS+-+cir+article+Kessler/$FILE/cir+article+kessler.pdf>
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Manin, B 1997, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge University Press, New York.
Pilkington, C 1997, Representative Democracy in Britain Today, Manchester University Press, London.
Tolbert, C. & Smith, D 2006, Representation and Direct Democracy in the United States, Representation 42(1): 25-44.
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