4.4 Representative Democracy — Not Democracy
From Political Freedom and Democracy by LJM Cooray (1996)

What exists in the countries which call themselves democratic is representative democracy. The people elect their representatives and entrust to them the complex task of government. The government has a degree of freedom in what it does but it is restricted by the fact that it is periodically answerable to the people. The government cannot entirely forget the people. In between elections, it prima facie seems to have a great degree of freedom but this is restricted, not only by the looming inevitability of elections in the future but also by the pressures put on the government by institutions, of which trade unions and big business are by no means the only ones.

The main strength of the system of representative democracy is that it makes provision, through the Constitution, law and political institutions, for limitations on the powers which are exercised by governmental authorities as well as by private associations and groups. It provides institutional checks and balances.

The essence of the system is not democracy but representative democracy and a system of checks and balances on those exercising power. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The incidence of the abuse of power cannot be eliminated but an attempt is made through the representative democratic system and its institutions to reduce the extent of the abuse of power. This is done through a number of devices and in various ways.

The existence of a system of fair elections which are not manipulated by the party in power, held periodically in an atmosphere of free speech, is the first factor. It is important that governments, when voted out, hand over power willingly and peacefully. Periodic elections ensure that members of government, knowing that they must face the people in the future, must be more responsive to the people's will, than in a system where they do not have to face elections.

An elected government should be restricted by the constitution and the law. It must function within the constitution and the law. An independent judiciary is vital in this context to ensure that government operates in accordance with the law and not in accordance with the arbitrary whims and fancies of those exercising power.

Government operates at many levels. Power is not centralised but distributed. An elected President or Prime Minister is at the apex, followed by ministers, members of parliament, civil servants, state governments and parliaments (in the case of federations), local government officials and so on. This operates as a restraint on the abuse of power. This is the theory of checks and balances, which was first given a strong theoretical base by Montesquieu and Hume.

The law and the constitution operate in a political context where many pressures are placed on the government. These include factions within government and the official opposition parties who, within Parliament and outside, criticise and focus attention on the actions of the government. Pressure groups of various types exist and their operation has the effect of narrowing the area of power of government. Trade unions, business organisations, social service institutions, religious bodies, the media and pressure groups representing feminist, consumer, environmental, aboriginal, homosexual and other views and interests, exercise considerable influence on governments and restrain and direct government power.

Pressure groups give rise to special problems. The public choice theorists argue that pressure groups have in fact increased arbitrary government. In the absence of limitations, factionalism leads to the pursuit of separate ends, with the government gaining power to satisfy particular demands.

There are non-legal limitations on governmental power which should not be undervalued. Freedom of speech and expression is one of the most important restrictions on exercise of power. In an age of investigative reporting and academic analyses of human problems, fear of criticism is one of the most effective restrictions on abuse of freedom for selfish ends. However, as the power of government grows, the area of free expression of individuals and institutions is adversely affected. Other non-legal restrictions include: the restriction on action imposed on politicians by the inevitability of the next election, tradition and values, the sense of duty (particularly of holders of public office) and individual integrity. Most of these values and institutions are under attack and their influence is diminishing.

The distribution of power has two important advantages. Firstly, it greatly reduces the danger of centralisation of power with its attendant propensity for abuse. Secondly, the debate and discussion engendered in the process of decision making ensures the consideration of a wide spectrum of views, in contrast to totalitarian and authoritarian countries where decisions are made by the dictatorial few with little consultation and consideration. Decisions taken in this manner are more likely to represent broader interests of the people than the sectarian interests of particular groups.

Governments are also restricted by financial restraints on spending, international fluctuations in trade and marketing, import and export considerations, balance of payment levels and other economic factors.

Countries which call themselves democratic, have a representative system of democracy. It is suggested that this is the only form of democracy which is viable in the larger and more complex societies of today. The irreducible minimum of a representative democracy is the responsibility of the government to the people. In the Westminster system this responsibility is maintained by the principle of collective responsibility of Cabinet to Parliament and the accountability of the members of Parliament to the electorate at periodic elections. Where there is an institutional separation of the legislature and the executive, both branches are directly responsible to the people.

Apart from the factors analysed above, four prerequisites for the operation of the representative democratic order may be mentioned:

  1. A minimum level of education, enabling the bulk of the population to vote with some (perhaps hazy) idea of what it is all about;
  2. A broad consensus, with no group having a significant following (whether political, racial, linguistic or religious) which is alienated from the system and working from outside to overthrow it;
  3. Basic standards of life, living and welfare;
  4. A degree of upward social and economic mobility providing avenues for persons of talent from the lower classes to move up the ladder, and the continued acceptance, by all classes, of this system.

The legal underpinning of democracy is the Constitution, and this is analysed in section 17.