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Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to either autocracy or direct democracy.

The representatives form more than what it used to be when it was an independent ruling body (for an election period) charged with the responsibility of acting in the people's interest, but not as their proxy representatives; that is, not necessarily always according to their wishes, but with enough authority to exercise swift and resolute initiative in the face of changing circumstances. It is often contrasted with direct democracy, where representatives are absent or are limited in power as proxy representatives.

In many representative democracies (Canada, Australia, UK, etc), representatives are most commonly chosen in elections by a plurality of those who are both eligible to cast votes and actually do so. A plurality means that a winning candidate has to win more votes than any other candidate in the race, but does not necessarily require a majority of the votes cast. While existing representative democracies hold such elections to choose representatives, in theory other methods, such as sortition (more closely aligned with direct democracy), could be used instead. Also, representatives sometimes hold the power to select other representatives, presidents, or other officers of government (indirect representation).

A representative democracy that emphasizes individual liberties is called a liberal democracy. One that does not is an illiberal democracy. There is no necessity that individual liberties are respected in a representative democracy.

Today, in liberal democracies, representatives are usually elected in multi-party elections that are free and fair. The power of representatives in a liberal democracy is usually curtailed by a constitution (as in a constitutional republic or a constitutional monarchy) or other measures to balance representative power:

  • An independent judiciary, which may have the power to declare legislative acts unconstitutional (e.g. constitutional court, supreme court)
  • It may also provide for some deliberative democracy (e.g., Royal Commissions) or direct popular measures (e.g., initiative, referendum, recall elections). However, these are not always binding and usually require some legislative action - legal power usually remains firmly with representatives[where?].
  • In some cases, a bicameral legislature may have an "upper house" that is not directly elected, such as the Canadian Senate, which was in turn modeled on the British House of Lords.

The term republic may have many different meanings. Today, it often simply means a state with an elected or otherwise non-monarchical head of state, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran or Republic of Korea. It may also have a meaning similar to liberal democracy. For example, "the United States relies on representative democracy, but its system of government is much more complex than that. It is not a simple representative democracy, but a constitutional republic in which majority rule is tempered by minority rights protected by law".

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