These days there are 192 members of the United Nations, many of whom at one time or another claim to be a democracy. There is no single specific system: the democratic processes generally reflect a country’s history, tradition, geography and communications.
The key, of course, is that that the people, the citizens, should be actively and regularly involved – should actively participate in decision-making on public issues.
Rights: Democracy should mean that the people have the right every so often to choose at competitive elections the individuals who in the next few years will be members of a Parliament, among whom the leader of the largest group of like-minded members will become head of the government. He or she will then appoint various fellow members to undertake particular tasks: they will form the cabinet of ministers.
What is crucial is that the leader needs the support of a majority in the elected Parliament, and can lose it. The electors can change the composition of the Parliament at the next election.
There are, of course, variations on this procedure. In the U.S., for example the President is elected quite independently, and may sometimes have difficulty in securing majority support in the Congress.
In broad terms, the people of the country are all citizens, protected by the laws. At a specified age (and there may be other provisions) they qualify for voting rights. In some countries women are still not able to vote, but the number of such countries is falling.
Though in most cases the elected prime minister or president is head of the government, some retain a monarch or some other very senior figure with limited powers who is Head of State, rather than Head of Government. The later may have to report to the former on certain issues.
Tonga of course has His Majesty the King.
Participation: Given that voters can elect or defeat a government they have a responsibility to keep themselves informed on public issues, to be up-to-date on particular problems the country is facing, to be aware of the attitudes being taken and the ideas expressed by their fellow-citizens, to assess the policies and character of likely candidates at the next election, and be ready to cast a carefully considered vote. It is a big responsibility.
In fact the health of the democracy depends very much on the seriousness with which the voters prepare themselves. It is their active participation that distinguishes democracy from other systems where decisions are taken by a handful of individuals without much if any consultation with the people. In democracy, people have a voice, and a right to participate.
By Roger Peren, Board member, Centre for Citizenship Education, Updated April 15, 2010