A democratic government, in the modern parlance of political science (which defines these terms), describes any system where the people fairly elect their own leaders. If there is an elected head of state, that government is a republic. If there is a hereditary king or queen as head of state, that government is called a constitutional monarchy. Both republics and constitutional monarchies are democracies; they are not direct democracies, however, which do away with elected representatives in favour of rule by popular referendum (no country today uses such a system). So, all democracies have elected representatives.
At its most basic, a democracy is a system of government where leaders are chosen by election, but there are other criteria. After all, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Egypt all have elections, but they are emphatically not democracies. Even the USSR had elections, which were claimed to prove that the government had the support of the people, despite their being totally fraudulent.
Typically, democracies have broad adult suffrage for all citizens. In other words, minority groups (at least those that are citizens) and women have the right to vote. A democracy must also have competitive, free, and fair elections. This means, first, that people may run for office without hindrance if they meet the legal qualifications, regardless of their political views, and the outcome is not preordained by the government (a competitive, free election). Secondly, the election is conducted so that all votes count relatively equally, fraud is minimized, and all major parties have access to media, without the government using private- or state-owned media to reward its allies and punish its enemies (a fair election). An election that does not meet these criteria is fraudulent and undemocratic. This was attempted in Ukraine in 2004, but pro-democracy advocates managed to expose the fraud and overturn the government in a remarkably peaceful Orange Revolution. If an election return has more than 90% support for the government candidate, as often happens in the former Soviet Union, then fraud is a likely explanation. Democracies also presume that the leaders are accountable to the electorate, even after coming to power. If they do not do the will of the people, in some fashion, then they will fall from power. Being elected does not give them the indefinite right to rule as they choose without popular consequences.
Political scientists debate what other traits are part of democratic government. Some say that competitive elections are sufficient, but most would say that additional criteria are involved in defining a democracy. For one thing, democracy is relatively meaningless if it can only be expressed during votes. Thus, a democracy must have protections for individual freedoms, particularly to speak their minds, even against government policy and leaders, and the right to assemble in protest. The extent to which a person is free to speak varies even among democracies (the US being generally more permissive than the UK, for example), but all have a fundamental principle that protest and speech are part of society.
A democracy also conforms to the rule of law, which means that the law is supreme and binding on everyone, even the government. This is true whether a country has a written constitution (like the USA) or an unwritten one, like the UK. Governments cannot simply ignore laws -- if, for example, elections for a representative parliament must be held no less than every five years, the government (even if it has been popularly elected) cannot simply overturn that without following rules designed to ensure popular consent. Likewise, elected officials cannot be above the law: if bribery and soliciting a murder are crimes for the average citizen, then the same laws apply to legislators, even to the prime minister or president.
Additionally, democracies are characterized by their openness and access to information. The...
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