Features of Democracy: 9 Major Features/Characteristics of a Democratic Government

The major Criticisms of Democracy as a system of government

Democracy is deemed to be the best system of government in the world today. This is so because the system tends to protect the interest of citizens first. Currently, most of the countries of the world (including the world power, USA) practice a democratic system of government. In this article, i will be discussing everything you need to know about democracy. Basically, we will be looking at the meaning of democracy, features of democracy, merits or advantages of democracy and the demerits or disadvantages of democracy in a state.

Nonetheless, i will elaborate more on the features of democracy. If you have been searching for an article that comprehensively explains democracy and its features, this is for you.

Meanwhile, before moving to the crux of this topic, i would like to give some rudimentary information about democracy and its origin. This will help you to understand rapidly when i will go into details. So, let’s get started!


Origin and Meaning of Democracy

What are the features of a democratic government?
What are the features of a democratic government?

Democracy is a Greek word which literally means “rule by the people“. It is a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation. In a democratic state or government, the supreme power of the state is vested on the people because they make political decisions that concerns the state either directly or through representatives periodically appointed by them.

This definition has been corroborated by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary. It defines democracy as government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

Above is a YouTube video explaining the meaning of democracy and the key features of a democratic government.

Two Major Types Of Democracy

1. Direct Democracy: This is where all the citizens attend the Assembly and take part in the decision making process, in order to govern the state or the society. This type of democracy was practiced in ancient small greek city. It was also parcticed in Nigeria during the Igbo precolonial administration.

2. Indirect Democracy:

In this system of democracy, the citizens the citizens through election, elect those who will represent and govern the state on their behalf. This is opposed to the direct democracy where everyone is actively participating in the governance of the day. This type of democracy replaced the direct democracy in modern states as it is impossible for everyone to participate due to the large number of people.

Characteristics/Features of Democracy

Below are the key characteristics of democracy:

  1. Existence of the Constitution
  2. Popular participation in politics
  3. Legitimacy
  4. Periodic election
  5. Separation of power
  6. Checks and balances
  7. Existence of political parties
  8. Equality before the law
  9. Fundamental human rights

In short, those are the features of a democratic state. Nonetheless, as we continue, each of these features above will be comprehensively discussed. I enjoin you to continue reading carefully as i will painstakingly explain everything you need to know.

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1. Existence of the Constitution: In every democratic nation, there is usually the existence of a constitution which is either written or written. A constitution can simply be defined as the fundamental laws or rules which guides a state or society. It establishes the institutions of the government such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary and define their powers. The constitution also contains the rights and duties of the citizens and the government.

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What are the features of democracy?

It is imperative to note that there are two types of institutions namely: Formal and informal institutions. Formal instructions are those which discharge formal functions such as the three arms of the government. On the other hand, infomal institutions are those which discharge informal responsibilities such as the political parties and the press. In a democratic society, the constitution usually state how these institutions functions.

2. Popular participation in politics: One the most important features of democracy is popular participation in politics. From the definition of democracy explained above, it is clear that any system which does not encourages people to participate in the political decision making of the government is not democratic.

Consequently, popular participation is not just a feature of democracy, it is an essential part of the system. People have to participate in politics either directly or through a representative which is legitimately recognized by them.

Popular participation as an essential characteristics of a democratic society
Popular participation as an essential characteristics of a democratic society

Take for instance, in Nigeria (a federal system), people at the local level, who can not actively participate in politics at the central level, are allowed to elect senators who represent their opinions at the central level. No doubt, popular participation in politics is one of the features of democracy that cannot be jettisoned.

3. Legitimacy: When I was in secondary school, I was taught that Legitimacy is the recognition of of the people of a state, the right of their leaders to govern. This definition of Legitimacy is actually very short and understandable.

Oxford dictionary defines democracy as when there is conformity to the law or to rules. I personally agree with the definition of Legitimacy in political science which Wikipedia says is the right and acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or a regime.

list of Democracy features and explanation
list of Democracy features and explanation

I explained earlier that in a democratic state, the people are allowed to select who to govern them. This is what is known as Legitimacy. Here, the people will unanimously agree on who will administer their political affairs.

This is usually done by voting and it is recognized by the law which the people have consented to. Apparently, this is why Abraham Lincoln said that democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. This postulates that in a democratic state the people are very key.

4. Periodic election: Since the people are the supreme in a democratic state, there is usually a fixed tenure for conducting elections. This is to make sure that the political powers of the state is not concentrated in a single hand. In the United States of America for instance, the president of the United States is elected indirectly to a four-year term, with a term limit of two terms.

In Nigeria, the president is to stay for four years in office after which another election will be conducted.

Characteristics of a democratic state
Characteristics of a democratic state

It is pertinent to note that periodic elections is a very essential feature of democracy because, where there is one particular leader administering the affairs of a state for eternity, that state cannot be said to be a democratic state. The people must be allowed to choose and change their leaders because they are supreme.

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5. Separation of power: Separation of power is a political concept by Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, an 18th century French social and political philosopher. It means that the political powers of a state should not be concentrated in one single hand. It should rather be separated and sheared to avoid dictatorship.

Here, the political powers of the state are shared between the arms of government (That is, the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary). The Legislature makes the law of the state. The executive implements the law and the judiciary interprets the law.

describe features of democracy
describe features of democracy

These powers are separated such that, there will be no interference in their activities. There arms of government are only allowed to check the activities of each other to ensure that they all conform to the law of the state which the people agrees with.

6. Checks and balances: The theory check and balances is an extension of the theory of separation of powers. It was propounded by Montesquieu in his book titled “The Spirit of the Laws“. According to research, Montesquieu’s theory of checks and balances is a principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power.

What are the features of democracy?
What are the features of democracy?

In that same light, checks and balances in a democratic state, ensures that the different arms of Government checks the actives of each other. Take for instance, if the legislature makes a law that it is not supposed, or prohibited from making, the judiciary can declare such law to be null and void.

It should be noted that for the principle of Checks and balances to be effective, there is need to give each arm autonomy to act on their own but not outside what is provided in the law.

Financial autonomy is also very important to ensure the effectiveness of checks and balances in a democratic government. No doubt, it is a very important feature of democracy.

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7. Existence of political parties: A political party is a union of like minded people who come together to take over power power. In a democratic state, there should be political parties. Not just one political party but two or more.

This is to ensure that the masses have different choices to choose from. A one party state cannot be said to be a democratic state because there is just one political party in the state. So the people does not really have any option.

Merits and demerits of democracy
Merits and demerits of democracy

Just like I have explained earlier. Democracy postulates that the people are Supreme and as such, they have the power to decide who will administer their political affairs. Conversely, a state where there is no political party or just one political party or where the people are not allowed to select anybody they want as leader, is not a democratic state.

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8. Equality before the law: In a true democratic state, there is equity before the law. This form of government does no encourage the idea that some class of citizens should or should not be punished for their actions. Even the legitimate leaders in a democratic state are forced to face the law during or after their service of the nation.

key features of democracy
key features of democracy

Equality is a key feature of democracy because it postulates that citizens have thesame rights to vote and to be voted for. This means that all votes casted in a democratic state during election is valid, not withstanding wealth or position of the person who casted the vote. This is exactly what is called equality.

9. Fundamental human rights: Fundamental human rights are also very important features of a democratic state. They are those inalienable and immutable right that is given to a member of a state as soon as he/she is born.

These rights helps to protect the citizens of that state from molestations by dictators. This is why it is important that the Fundamental human rights of people in a democratic state be entrenched in the constitution of every state.

key features of democracy in US, Nigeria, China, Africa
key features of democracy in US, Nigeria, China, Africa

In the constitution of the Federal republic of Nigeria for instance, the Right to human dignity is protected under section 4 of the constitution. This right protects the citizens of Nigeria from any act by another person that degrades their dignity.

There are other fundamental human rights that also help to ensure effective practice of democracy. The freedom of the press is one of them. Evidently, press freedom is one of the essential pillars of a democratic state. It is also one of the main features of democracy.

Merits and Demerits of a Democratic Government

Below are the advantages and disadvantages of democracy:

Merits of democracy

1. Democracy helps to avoid dictatorship in government. This is apparently why the principle of separation of powers is one of the features of democracy. Thus, the political powers of a democratic state cannot lie in the hands of one man.

2. Democracy requires the consent of the people. It is the government of the people, by the people and for the people. Which means that the people in every democratic state are the Supreme. They decide the policy to implement and the policy not to implement.

3. Democracy encourages justice since there is equality before the law. Thus, in a true democracy, citizens must face the consequences of their actions in law regardless of their wealth or political office.

4. In a democratic state everyone is carried along in the activities of the state. The majority have their way and the minority have their say. This means that no group in a true democracy is neglected. It is a government for everyone including the minorities.

5. Democracy encourages faster economic growth. From the structure of a democratic government, it is evident that this form of government largely encourages growth and development in the economic of the state.

Demerits of democracy:

1. Corruption: it is argued that there is always a high rate of corruption in most democratic state. This is apparently as a result of the hunger by greedy leaders to satisfy their personal or selfish interests in government.

2. Cost of the system: It is also very expensive to run a democratic government. Check the amount of money that will be spent on conducting elections in the state periodically. Also, democracy incorporates other political principles which are also very expensive to run. This is considered as one of the disadvantages of running a democratic state.

3. Democracy is probably impossible where the masses are not enlightened enough to know that they have the right to vote and to be voted for. In other words, democracy may not be feasible in a state with many people who are not politically enlightened.

4. Lastly, it is argued by many scholars that there cannot be a true democracy in a state. These scholar postulates that democracy is a combination of many theories which even though they are compatible, cannot be truely practiced in any state. There must be definitely be a lacuna in the government and this is true to some extent.

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In conclusion, it is evident from the features of democracy highlighted above, that democracy is a good form of government. Nonetheless, it should also be noted that this system of government (Democracy) may not fit every nation since the way of life of every nation is not the same.

In short, I am of the view that democracy is not the best form of government for every state. No form of government is the best generally. It wholesomely depends on the people practicing that form of government.

I would like to hear from you if you have any question or contribution to make on this topic. Do well to send it via the comment section. I will be glad to here from you!

1 thought on “Features of Democracy: 9 Major Features/Characteristics of a Democratic Government”

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