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Definition

As defined by Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the US, “democracy is government of the people for the people and by the people”.

The concept of democracy has evolved significantly over time. The original form of democracy was what is today known as a “direct democracy,” a system of government in which the decisions were not taken by representatives. Instead, all decisions were voted for by the people. Comparatively, today’s most common form of governing system is known as a “representative democracy,” in which the people exercise their right to make political decisions through their elected representatives.

Origins

The word “democracy” has its origins in the Greek language. It combines two shorter words: “demos,” signifying a whole citizen living within a particular city-state; and “kratos,” meaning power or rule. In 507 BCE, Cleisthenes (a Greek lawgiver from Athens) introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratis, or “rule by the people”. Because of this, he is now widely referred to as “the father of Athenian democracy”. This political system is one of ancient Greece’s most enduring contributions to the modern world.

Athenian’s democracy had two main features that distinguished it, including the unplanned elections for common citizens to occupy administrative and judicial government offices, as well as the legislative assembly that rested with them. The elected nationals were authorized to speak and vote in the assembly, which in turn decided the laws of the city state.

Alas, not all Athenian citizens were included in this process – as it excluded women, slaves, foreigners, and youth below the age of military service.

An interesting point to note is that, at the time, the benefit of citizenship was linked to the obligation to fight wars. With this in mind, we can see why the exclusion of 3 out of 4 citizens from the electorate body was intimately associated to the ancient perception of citizenship.

The Athenian system of “direct democracy” – where the region was truly run by the local people – lasted for almost a century. By that time, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War against Sparta and a court system replaced what was originally established as a direct democratic system.

At around 700 BCE, a score voting electoral system first appeared in Sparta. The assembly of the old people (called as the the Apella) was held once a month.  Every male citizen over thirty years of age could vote.

The Iroquois Nation in the Americas also developed a form of democratic society before encountering the Europeans in the period between 1450 CE and 1600 CE. This indicates that other societies around the world also established and initiated their own forms of democracies.

There is a noticeable similarity between the Athenian and modern liberal democracy as we know it today. Democracy (or demokratia) is both a political system and a political ideology. As a system it is rule by the people. As an ideology it is unavoidably bound with liberty, equality, and the right to live as one pleases.

Let’s hope that out of the present horrifying wars there may come a wider consciousness of the value of democracy, alongside a greater impetus toward the realization of democracy in all aspects of life.