Autocratic governments are gaining ground in various countries of the world. In many countries the governments are doing away with democratic norms despite coming to power on public mandate. There is also a move to promote the idea that democracy has no hard and fast definition or principle. But is that actually so? Ali Riaz discusses the position and the pertinence of democracy in the long search for a universally acceptable and most just system of governance, dating back to the ancient times of the Greek city-state. This is the first installment of the three-part series on the topic.

Democracy faces a crisis the world over and the issue is being discussed far and wide. The 2021 annual report of Freedom House says that the regression of democracy over the past 15 years continues and has been particularly strong in the past one year. In 2020, democracy regressed in 73 states and progressed in only 28. And two thirds of the world’s population lives in the countries in which democracy has slid back.

The rulers of the country where democracy is regressing do not consider themselves to be undemocratic. On the contrary, they claim to be safeguarding democracy. They say that since there is no hard and fast definition of democracy and no one single form of democracy, the system they are promoting is just another form of democracy.

Having no specific definition does not mean that democracy has no definite principle. Democracy does not consider any particular system of government as the ideal – but that does not mean that there are no essential criteria of a democratic system. Democracy is an ideology and, at the same time, a system of governance. These two aspects cannot be separated.

It was during the time of Aristotle in ancient Greece that the search began for the essential and basic principles of democracy. But it was in the 16th century that these issues featured significantly in the discussions on the state and the rights of citizens. Baron de Montesquieu, Thomas Hobbs, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau made important contributions in this regard. Their deliberations stemmed from a stand against absolutist states and emphasised individual liberties.


Hobbs (1588-1679) was slightly inclined towards absolutism, basically on the question of individual liberties. But he placed importance on a social contract among the people. He forcefully said that in exchange of sacrificing some rights, ‘absolute power’ would protect the people. John Locke (1632-1704) did not just question Hobbs on the matter of social contract, but took the concept further ahead. His logic was that the social contract must be between the state and the subjects.

Locke very clearly did not discard the necessity of monarchy, but gave importance to the concept of establishing a government on the basis of approval, adding that if these representatives failed to uphold the welfare of the subjects, that approval would be withdrawn. That has grown to be the main precondition in the relations between the government and the subjects in any democratic system. He also mentioned the need t keep the legislative and the executive separate.

Montesquieu (1689-1755) spoke of three types of government: a republic that would be either democratic or aristocratic; monarchy; and autocracy. But, importantly, he spoke of people’s sovereignty, saying that the people were sovereign. It is from this basic principle that voting rights and the law in this regard are an indispensible part of the democratic government form.

In his well-known book ‘The Social Contract’ (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) insisted that the people would take up social contact. They would have to forfeit certain rights for this, not to any monarch, but to the entire society, to the people. They would mean applying their will to create laws in the interest of public welfare.

Almost all theorists have said that it is the government would apply this general will. The question is, how can we be certain that the government will not exceed the limits? Jeremy Bentham (1748-1831) and James Mill (1773-1836) have discussed this in detail. According to him, the accountability of the ruler to the subject is an important matter. Bentham wrote that democracy safeguards the people who are part of the democratic system from being exploited by the executives whom they have appointed to protect them. That is the objective and reaction of democracy. In other words, it is necessary to save democracy from autocracy and even from those who have been appointed to implement the will of the people. That is why the points stressed by both Bentham and Mill are summarised by political scientist David Held who maintained that in general the interests of the society could be upheld by mean of votes, secret ballots, contest between potential political leaders, elections, speeches and public involvement.

Freedom of speech and press freedom, freedom to organise and to congregate, lie at the heart of freedom of expression. This is a basic factor of human rights

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) mentioned two issues – democracy and independence. His reasoning was that liberty was essential in our lives. If there was no liberty, people’s voices would be stifled and they would lose their ability for new thinking, discoveries and to flourish as a people. He said that liberty could flourish the best with a community active under a democratic system. The first of the three liberties mentioned by Mill was freedom of thought and emotion, which means freedom of expression. According to Mill, an essential condition among the very important tasks in governance was a constitutional system of control where the people’s approval would be vested on the people’s representatives. In other words, it was essential for constitution to hold the control of those in power.

The summary of the work done by renowned political theorists indicates that democracy has four fundamental ideals – people’s sovereignty, representation, accountability and freedom of expression.

Sovereignty means the people will establish the government and the government will be under the people’s will. This concept not only rejects autocratic authority or aristocratic rule, but points to the rule of law. In short, the bottom line is that the basis of democracy is that that everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. Sovereignty is an inseparable matter. It cannot be snatched away from the people in the name of divine powers, development, national security or political ideology.

Representation is the manner in which the people bestow their approval on the ruler. For example, the US constitution declares that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right and the government has been formed to ensure these rights, given the approval by the people. It is the people’s approval that gives legitimacy to the government’s right to rule. The poet John Milton wrote, “The power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what only is derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people to the common good of all, in whom the power yet remains fundamentally, and cannot be taken from them, without a violation of their natural birth-right.”


Accountability is concept where on one side it develops by means of checks and balances, and on the other it ensures people’s role in the government’s routine work. It would not be right to view accountability simply in a vertical manner. In the case of a sustainable and effective democracy, accountability will be vertical, horizontal and social. Then again, a government’s horizontal accountability is created though some relatively independent institutions which will function as a net. These are certain constitutionally recognised institutions like the anti-corruption and the human rights institutions. Social accountability is the system of accountability to civil institutions.

Freedom of speech and press freedom, freedom to organise and to congregate, lie at the heart of freedom of expression. This is a basic factor of human rights. Justice Benjamin Cardozo of the US Supreme Court, in a case of 1937, described freedom of expression as the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor at the Illinois State University in the US.

*This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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