Democracy is a form of government where citizens have the power to create the kind of society they want. In a direct democracy, everyone is responsible for creating and passing laws, but in an indirect democracy – also known as a representative democracy – citizens elect people who represent them in government. How does representative democracy work? In this article, we’ll explore the main types of representative democracy, give examples of countries using representative democracy, and present criticisms of this form of government.
In a representative democracy, eligible citizens elect other people to represent them in government. Ideally, these representatives then pass legislation reflecting the views of the people.
What are the main types of representative democracy?
All types of representative democracy share a common feature: citizens choose their representatives. The goal is that these representatives pass laws and policies that their constituents want, which creates a democratic society. Not all representative democracies look the same, however. There are five main types: parliamentary constitutional monarchies, federal republics, parliamentary republics, presidential systems, and semi-presidential republics.
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Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Parliamentary constitutional monarchies (usually abbreviated to constitutional monarchies) have a king or queen, but their powers are significantly limited by a constitution. The government’s real power is wielded by a parliament or other legislative body, which is usually headed by a prime minister. The unelected monarch is a symbolic head of state, but eligible citizens choose the officials who make laws and policies.
A federal republic is a federation of states using a republican form of government. Like all republics, federal republics have a government made of elected representatives and an elected leader, like a president. Most federal republics have presidents but may use parliamentary systems, presidential systems, or semi-presidential systems. Most have an official set of rules, often listed in a Constitution, that limit the government’s powers and protect citizens’ rights. The central government is also not allowed to strip state governments of their authority.
A parliamentary government is similar to a constitutional monarchy, but there’s no monarchy involved. One of the types of parliamentary governments, a parliamentary republic, has both a president and a prime minister. The parliament is the highest legislative body responsible for choosing the prime minister. There’s a distinction between the head of state and the head of government. The head of state (the president) holds a more ceremonial position, like a monarch. The head of government (the prime minister) is in charge of the executive branch and dependent on parliament’s approval. In parliamentary systems, parliament (the legislative branch) has the most power of the three branches of government – legislative, executive, and judicial. The hope is that this gives citizens – who voted for parliament – a stronger voice.
In a presidential system, the president is the head of the government. They lead the executive branch and also serve as the head of state, which is distinct from systems where the head of state and head of government are two different offices. They are elected by the people. Unlike in parliamentary systems, the legislature in a presidential system can’t dismiss the president simply because they have no confidence in them. They can only vote to remove them (this process is usually called “impeachment”) in extreme and specific circumstances as outlined in the Constitution. This gives the president a level of independence and power not found in parliamentary systems. They are essentially only accountable to their nation’s citizens.
Semi-presidential republics are a type of parliamentary government, but they combine elements of a presidential system. In the semi-presidential system, there are three sources of power: a popularly-elected president, a prime minister, and a cabinet. Within this system, there are even more variations. In some places, the prime minister and president have equal powers, but in other countries, one may have more power than the other. In a president-parliamentary republic, the president is not a symbolic figurehead; they have real power. They choose their cabinet and parliament, but the cabinet is accountable to the legislature and president. If the legislature or president loses confidence in the cabinet, they can force the members to resign. Parliament or the president can also dismiss the prime minister with a “vote of no confidence.”
What countries use representative democracy?
Most people live in countries using some form of representative democracy, though how democratic those countries are varies widely. Here are real-world examples of the five types of representative democracies we discussed above:
Country: The United Kingdom
Government type: Parliamentary constitutional monarchy
The UK has a monarch (head of state) and a Prime Minister (head of government). While the monarch is a symbolic figurehead, the Prime Minister leads the government with the support of the Cabinet and ministers. The Cabinet is made up of senior members of government chosen by the Prime Minister. They make up the executive branch. How is the PM chosen? The UK has a general election every five years. Instead of voting for the PM directly, citizens choose which party delegate they want to represent their area. The party that wins the most constituencies wins the election. The leader of that party usually becomes the PM. Citizens also elect members of the House of Commons, which is one of two houses in Parliament. The House of Commons is the legislative branch responsible for passing new laws, setting taxes, and checking the government.
Government type: Federal republic + presidential system
Brazil, whose full name is The Federative Republic of Brazil, uses a presidential system. There are three government branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Every four years, eligible citizens vote for their president and vice president. The country uses a two-round system and an absolute majority vote, which means the winner needs to earn more than 50% of the valid votes. The legislative branch – the federal senate – is elected by plurality vote in multi-member constituencies. The president appoints justices, who must be approved by the federal senate. The Constitution lays out the rules for removing a president.
Country: The United States
Government type: Federal republic + presidential system
The US is a federal republic with a presidential system, but it has some key differences from Brazil. The biggest is the electoral college. While US citizens vote for a president, they’re not voting for them directly. They’re voting for “electors” who promise to cast votes that reflect the will of the people. The people’s votes also don’t translate directly to who wins; presidents can lose the popular vote, but win with electoral votes. Electoral votes are calculated based on a state’s representation in Congress, which is made of officials elected by the people. This system is meant to ensure small states get a voice, but results can end up disproportionately favoring states with small populations. A presidential candidate must receive 270 out of 538 electoral votes.
Government type: Parliamentary republic + semi-presidential
France is a semi-presidential parliamentary republic. Every five years, French citizens vote for their Head of State, who is the president. The President then appoints the Prime Minister, who suggests members of the government. It’s up to the President to appoint them. The legislative branch, Parliament, has two houses: the National Assembly and the Senate. Members of both are elected, though the Senate is elected through indirect universal suffrage, which means representatives elect members. Citizens directly elect members of the National Assembly, however. The Prime Minister is accountable to Parliament, while the President can only be removed by impeachment.
What are the main criticisms of representative democracy?
There are no true direct democracies; representative democracy is the closest thing we have. There are three main criticisms:
Elected officials don’t always reflect the people’s views
Once citizens elect a representative, no law forces the representative to do what their constituents want. There are countless stories of people getting elected only to turn on their voters or simply prove to be incompetent. Regular elections are meant to remove officials who don’t follow the will of the people – and most countries have term limits – but the damage can be hard to undo. In many cases, there also may not be better options. Voters are stuck electing people who consistently let them down.
The systems can be inefficient
Direct democracies can be chaotic and slow-moving because so many people are involved. While representative democracies significantly cut down on the number of people making decisions, things still move very slowly. Debating laws and policies drag on and on while the problems they’re meant to address get worse and worse. Inefficient governments can lose the trust of the people, which leads us to our last criticism.
The success of representative democracy depends on participation
Governments become more democratic when lots of people participate, whether that’s as a voter, a grassroots organizer, or an elected official. This is true even with the caveat that elected officials aren’t forced to do what people want. When people consistently vote out officials who aren’t holding up their end of the deal, it sends a message to anyone who wants to run. However, many countries don’t have active participants. Inefficiency is a big reason why; many people don’t trust their elected officials to do anything for them, so they check out. Racial and gender discrimination, limited time and energy, and other barriers also impact participation. For representative democracy to truly work, it needs to be as inclusive and expansive as possible.