Democracy is one of the most common types of government in the modern world. Over half of the world's countries employ some kind of democratic system; however, world leaders do not agree on exactly what a democracy means. Despite the lack of a clear definition of this type of government, political scientists agree that four practices must be present in a country's political system in order for its government to be considered democratic.
Because the basic definition of democracy is a system in which people govern by majority rule, a democracy's most important and universally agreed upon component is a voting system. Voting systems can be direct, meaning that citizens personally vote on legislation, or they can be indirect, meaning that citizens elect representatives who vote on their behalf. In order for a democracy to work properly, votes must be secret, voters cannot be intimidated and campaigning politicians must be able to communicate their ideas with the public. Election processes must also be impartially monitored to ensure a system's integrity.
A democratic system can only work if a country's citizens participate. In a democracy, it is every adult's responsibility to be educated about and aware of societal issues and to vote. Political parties and civic organizations are vital to this process by helping to educate voters, organize voter groups and campaign. If a democracy is working properly, the result of voter participation is that elected officials represent a country's diversity. Although political participation is extremely important to a working democracy, it should never be mandatory.
Civil liberties are essential to the existence of a democracy and are so important that the United Nations legally guarantees them to all people. Rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press are important to the function of democracy because they allow individuals to communicate different points of view, debate with one another and form the majority opinion that is essential to the voting process. Other civil liberties that are vital to democracy include equal protection for all under the law, freedom from slavery and freedom to assemble.
A functional democracy exists to establish laws, protect individual rights and limit governmental power. The United States, which is a type of representative democracy known as a republic, also has laws in place to limit majority rule. The purpose of this limitation is to protect the rights of minority citizens. In order to preserve democracy, a government must have separation from the military and a systems of checks and balances to prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful. Transparent and effective processes that successfully implement legislation and lack of corruption are also vital for an effective democracy.
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