According to a lecture I picked up on the Stanford University website, Democracy consists of four basic elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; the protection of the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
Democracy is a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. The people decide who will represent them in parliament, and who will head the government by choosing between competing parties in regular, free and fair elections. Government is based on the consent of the governed. Unfortunately, in many democracies those who voted for the losing party find that their votes go unnoticed and have no value. Laws require majority support in parliament, which means the rights of minorities may or may not be protected.
The people are the highest form of political authority in the long run because a dissatisfied electorate can remove a government at a general election but, in the short term, the government does whatever it wants. The people are free to criticize their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Elected representatives at the national and local levels are supposed to listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions, an all too rare event.
Elections occur at regular intervals as prescribed by law. A government cannot extend its term in office without asking for the consent of the people in an election. For elections to be free and fair, they are administered by a neutral, fair and professional body that treats all political parties and candidates equally. All parties and candidates have the right to campaign freely. Voters vote in secret, free of intimidation and violence. Independent observers monitor the voting and the vote counting to ensure that the process is free of corruption, intimidation and fraud. An impartial and independent tribunal resolves any disputes about the election results.
The key role of citizens in a democracy is to participate in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders use their powers. Voting in elections is another important civic duty of all citizens. Participation can also involve campaigning for a political party or candidate, standing as a candidate for political office, debating public issues, attending community meetings, petitioning the government, and even protesting. A vital form of participation comes through membership of independent, non-governmental organisations, what we call “civil society”, representing a variety of interests and beliefs: farmers, workers, doctors, teachers, business owners, religious believers, women, students, human rights activists.In a democracy every citizen has certain basic rights guaranteed under international law that the state cannot take away: the right to have your own beliefs, and to say and write what you think; freedom of religion; the right to enjoy your own culture; freedom to choose between different sources of news and opinion; the right to associate with other people, and to form and join organisations of your own choice, including trade unions; freedom to move about the country or to leave the country; the right to assemble freely, and to protest government actions.
Everyone has an obligation to exercise these rights peacefully, with respect for the law and for the rights of others. Democracy is a system of rule by laws, not by individuals. The rule of law protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government. All citizens are equal under the law. No one may be discriminated against on the basis of their race, religion, ethnic group or gender. No one may be arrested, imprisoned or exiled arbitrarily. If you are detained, you have the right to know the charges against you, and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to the law. Anyone charged with a crime has the right to a fair, speedy, and public trial by an impartial court.
No one may be taxed or prosecuted except by a law established in advance. No one is above the law, not even a king or an elected president. Courts that are independent of the other branches of government enforce the law. No ruler, minister, or political party can tell a judge how to decide a case.
Torture and cruel and inhumane treatment are absolutely forbidden. Office-holders cannot use their power to enrich themselves. Independent courts and commissions punish corruption, no matter who is guilty. In a democracy it is impossible for everyone to achieve everything they want. Democracy requires compromise.