History of Democracy

Pro-democracy protesters hold up placards

To govern human beings is a herculean task that explains why humanity has designed various government systems with democracy being the most remarkable. Democracy can be defined as a kind of government where the people or the masses have the authority to choose their leaders. This is why democracy is often called the government of the people, for the people, and by the people. (This definition of democracy binds the East to West) 

Apart from power residing with the masses, some other features are unique to this form of government. These include freedom of speech and assembly alongside concepts like equality, consent, right to life, inclusive, minority rights, and voting. Democracy has been in place for thousands of years, and this piece will focus on its history. 

Origin of Democracy – Gana-Sanghas of India

The origins of democracy, or what some scholars have called proto-democracy, can be traced to the Gana Sanghas of ancient India. Also called the Gana-Rajya, they were forms of republics that wielded immense power. Two of the sixteen power states in India (collectively called the Mahajanapadas), i.e., Malla and Vajji, followed the government’s gana sangha system.

The capital city of the Vajjian Confederacy (Vaishali) is believed to be the pioneering example of a republic as it was established around the 6th century BCE. These democratic states operated like tribal or consultative assemblies, and they derived their legitimacy from the people even though several factors influenced this. 

Democracy in Ancient Greece and Italy

In around 508-507 BCE, democracy was also featured in Athens, one of Greece’s city-states, and it was during that time the name democracy stuck to this form of government. The people of Athens bonded together and explored a way of democracy, which is closely similar to what is practiced today. There were assemblies; people voted for their representatives, and citizens had rights. Later, this practice spread to Sparta, another city-state of Greece. 

In neighboring Italy, the manifestation of Democracy came in the form of the Roman Republic. But the pattern of voting was different from what was obtained in Athens and Sparta. In Rome, only a few were citizens and had voting power. So it did not really have a system that can be described as being fully democratic. 

Medieval Era and Democracy

Even though the Middle Ages was a period when most of Europe was under the rule of feudal lords or the church, there were some instances where democratic principles were applied. These include the Althing in Iceland (established in 930, the Althing is the oldest surviving parliament in the world), Papal conclaves (for the selection of popes), and the Things (governing assemblies) in Scandinavia. However, these democratic structures of the medieval era were not limited to Europe alone; there were examples in other parts of the globe. 

Democracy outside Europe in the Middle Ages featured in Chola, a kingdom in South India, the election of Caliph Umar as leader of the Rashidun Caliphate, Sakai (Japan), Igbo communities of Nigeria (in West Africa), the election in the Gopala community in Bengal, India. 

One of the most prominent republic systems in this era was seen in the United Kingdom with the Parliament of England, which traces its origins into the Magna Carta of 1215. With time, petitioning will also be introduced, thus broadening the participation of the masses in the nation’s governance. With time, parliamentary and democratic institutions also sprang in various parts of the globe.

This led to changes in the urbanization pattern and eventually, with increased democratization came greater economic prosperity. This trend continues until today. 

The Rise of Democracy in the Modern Era

The advent of democracy in the modern era can be traced to 17th century England regarding the Magna Carta. In 1628, the Parliament of England promulgated the Petition of Right, which allowed specific freedom of citizens. It did not come easy as a series of conflicts lasting from 1642 to 1651 (called the English Civil War) raged over the changes to the nation’s governance structure. Eventually, there was an enactment of the Bill of Rights in 1689, and it stated clearly that there was not going to be room for an absolute monarchy. 

18th and 19th Centuries

By the 18th and 19th centuries, democracy had deepened even further in places like Great Britain, Sweden, Iceland, and even the United States of America, which adopted its constitution in 1787 and it was based on democratic principles even if it had some limitations like restricting suffrage to taxpayers and white males who owned property only. 

In the same period, other countries that made significant advancements in a democracy included Poland and Lithuania, before Austria, Russia, and Germany, messed things up. France would undergo a severe revolution in 1789, which made it adopt the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It was in the same year that France abolished the monarchy and switched to a democratic system. 

20th and 21st Centuries

The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a rapid rise of democracies all over the globe. Decolonization, economic prosperity, revolutions, civil wars, and religious influence were factors responsible for this. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires after the First World War led to the formation of new nation-states interested in nothing but democracy. 

It was a long walk to freedom in some other nations as they had to face brutal dictatorships or ruthless monarchies before becoming democracies. Examples in this regard include Italy, Portugal, Germany (under the Nazis), Spain, and Japan. The Second World War came with a wave of decolonization which triggered democratic regimes in various parts of Africa and Asia. 

It took the nations of Latin America and even Africa a while before they eventually joined the republic train. The collapse of Hitler to the collapsing Soviet Union also triggered democracy movements all across central Asia and central and east Europe. Today, almost 60% of the global population is under electoral democratic systems, and from the look of things, the future of governments belongs to democracy where power truly belongs to the people

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