Representative democracy
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Representative democracy has changed the operational meanings of the very concept of democracy since the Athenian democracy of ancient times. Since it was propounded by Mill in 19th century, whose idea gave currency to the very concept of indirect form of democracy in the Western world, from where it flowed into the colonized continents. All the continents at one point or the other had been the colony of one European state or another, with the effect that the idea of representative democracy as a European brainchild continued to be absorbed by the colonies.

In other words, the rise of the concept of representative democracy has coincided with the demise of the concept of direct democracy. Historically, the direct democracy was the most original form of government which ancient Greeks practiced in their city-states. The concept contained the principles of self-rule in which each individual, more specifically each male citizen, was practically involved in governance. Literally, every person in direct democracy is supposed to be a legislator himself. In city-states, every citizen could legislate in the matters concerning their territorial boundary, something equivalent to our countries in contemporary meanings.

However, with the changing times and with smaller city-states being absorbed into bigger national identities, the idea of self-rule became impracticable. Subsequently, the concept of nation-state eventually rendered the idea of direct democracy impossible.

Now, the notion of a nation-state, the by-product of the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, facilitated an innovation in democratic governance into a new direction. Subsequently, the 19th century English political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, turned out to be the agent of change in this regard. In his celebrated book, “On Representation,” he first presented an idea of representative democracy in a systemic way. The idea that people can choose their representatives to represent them in a legislature and run the government in their name. Since those times, the idea was popularized to such a degree that all the democratic world, except for Switzerland, uses representative form of governance.

Limitations of Representative Democracy

Despite the global usage, the idea and the application of representative democracy are not immune to criticism. Particularly the more frequent criticism comes from the advocates of participatory democracy. Those critics who still idealize the democratically most pure form of direct democracy, blame that representative form of democracy has been prone to all possibilities of corruption. This corruption could be of either moral nature or it could be related to finance. In addition, individual incompetency, sectoral politics and nepotism are the most frequent claims made against representative democracy.

Above all, the single biggest demerit of the representative democracy, as the critics suggest, is that it has virtually reduced into an oligarchical rule. The oligarchy is a Greek term which refers to the rule of a few (often bad) people.

It is a general observation that mostly the elections are contested by those who have financial resources. Unfortunately, since the election is the game of the rich, the poor or even the middle-class can hardly afford the luxury of contesting an election. This constraint generally ends up sending richer class in the parliaments. This dilemma is more manifest in the third-world countries where the developing democracy has been vainly seeking its own justification.

What is the Way out?

Owing to the size of the contemporary states, the idea of direct democracy can hardly be advocated. Obviously, it would be ridiculous in India, the world’s largest democracy with its population of around 1.5 billion people to allow each person to legislate for his country. So, the world has to live with representative form of democracy. But still there must be something which could make oligarchy into at least an aristocratic look.

According to Aristotle, oligarchy is a perverted form of aristocracy, which means the rule of few (often good) people. However, in either case it is not democracy but either oligarchy or aristocracy which the democratic states actually practice in the name of democracy.

In representative democracies, elections take place on the basis of a set of rules called electoral system. It is those electoral systems which decide which translate votes into parliamentary seats. If there is some practical panacea to seek maximum democratization from this representative form of democracy, it could possibly be from finding out those electoral systems which ensure maximum translation of vote into seats.

Ideally, the proportional representation (PR) system that works on the simple rule that a party gains seat according to the percentage of votes it gains is closest to democracy. As compared to Anglo-American first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system which works on the winner-takes-all principle, the votes in PR system do not go waste. Whereas, in FPTP system the winner only needs a simple majority in order to get elected. Even one more vote than his nearest rival sends him to parliament, with the effect that all the votes cast for the losing candidates count for nothing.

The way, FPTP system is more distant to the idea of participatory democracy that identifies it with each citizen of life. Probably, for the same reasons the democracies working under FPTP systems including its originator, the Great Britain, have been reviewing it. However, it is no exaggeration to say that PR system is the best consolation to the direct democracy in the contemporary world.

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