Democracy is a political system in which the legitimacy of those in power is based on the acceptance of their power by the people. Having greatly expanded over the course of the twentieth century, it continues to evolve and has now been almost universally adopted as the system of choice. However, many countries are as yet democracies in name only, while in long-established democracies a certain amount of mistrust is evident, notably expressed by low turnout in elections and the rise of populist parties.

Democracy emerged in Athens in the fifth century BCE. It is a political regime based on the sovereignty of the people, where power is legitimized though its acceptance by the people. In the words of American President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, adopted into the French Constitution in 1958 (article 2), democracy is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This contrasts with dictatorship (and authoritarian regimes), where power is exerted by one person or by a group (oligarchy), with no separation or balance of executive, legislative and judiciary powers, and hence without legal or institutional constraint and usually by force. In extreme cases, dictatorship can take the form of a totalitarian regime in which the exercise of power extends to the private sphere and seeks to make citizens submit to an ideology (3 rd Reich, USSR, Islamic State, etc.).

Modern democracy has its roots in the Middle Ages, especially in the rise to power of the English Parliament, countering the power of the monarch (Magna Carta, 1215). But the first liberal democracy was born with the independence of the United States, whose constitution (ratified in 1788) enshrines the principles of liberty and equality before the law, unlike the aristocratic regimes that were the norm in Europe. In France in the same period, the National Assembly that emerged out of the Revolution of 1789 was established on liberal principles set out in the Declaration of theRights of Manand of the Citizen. The American and French revolutions established principles of representative government based on Enlightenment philosophy, in which the decision-making powers of elected representatives are subject to the rule of law defined in a constitution that guarantees the protection of individual rights and freedoms.

Democracy building in France, 1789-2018 

Source: compiled by Philippe Copinschi. 

Comment: These chronological indicators trace some of the main stages of democracy-building in France: from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 to the present day, they demonstrate some major advances, such as freedom of expression and worship (1814), the abolition of slavery (1848), universal suffrage including women (1944), the abolition of forced labor (1960) and abolition of the death penalty (1981).

Different models

Contemporary democracies developed very gradually and their modes of operation have continued to evolve. While the fundamental principles if democracy remain the same, it can take different forms. There is no single model because every political system is shaped by its social and cultural context. Democracy may be parliamentary or presidential and can sometimes include elements of direct democracy, as in Switzerland. Some democracies are republics, while others are parliamentary monarchies preserving aristocratic traditions and rights, as in the United Kingdom.

Today most democracies are representative and grounded in a principle of the equality of citizens. However, in the past, the right to vote was often dependent on wealth (tax-based voting system), with so-called universal suffrage introduced only gradually. In France, “universal” male suffrage was not definitively established until 1848, while the right to vote was not extended to women until 1944; non-EU foreign residents are still excluded. Similarly, for a long time there were many restrictions on racial grounds. Into the 1960s and 70s, many European powers then regarded as democratic possessed colonies in which entire populations were excluded from citizenship.

Democracy in the World

Sources: Economist Intelligence Unit , Democracy Index 2017,; Societal-Systems Research Inc. & University of Maryland, Polity IV Project,; IFES Election Guide,

Comment: The maps show two indicators of democracy calculated by research centers. Overall, the indicators represent democracies in Europe, America and Oceania, and authoritarian regimes in Africa and the Middle East. Clear differences are nevertheless visible in the case of some countries (Venezuela, Russia, Myanmar, etc.) or even continents (in Africa). These differences result from the choices of sub-indicators, sources and weightings, which should be broken down.

Attributes of democracy

Certain attributes are now necessary for a regime to be described as democratic: regular, free elections by universal suffrage; pluralism and the possibility of a change of power; separation between the executive, legislative and judicial branches; a stable, independent legal system; protection of basic rights and individual freedoms (Rule of Law), notably freedom of conscience, religion, expression and the press (existence of free, independent media), freedom of association and assembly (implying multiparty democracy); equal rights (equality under the law). Often caricatured as rule by the majority, democracy cannot exist unless it guarantees respect for minorities (upheld by independent institutions), the right of individuals to dissent (freedom of conscience), to express their opinions (freedom of speech) and to organize in order to spread their ideas (freedom of association).

Global spread

This type of political regime became widespread in the twentieth century, when it expanded out of Western Europe and North America to all continents, although it is less prevalent in the Middle East and Central Asia and remains fragile in Africa. The resurgence of authoritarianism in Europe between the two world wars was succeeded by a wave of democratization in countries that had been defeated (Japan, Germany, Italy) or colonies that had achieved independence (India), etc. This process was slowed by the Cold War, since the Western democracies did not shrink from shoring up dictatorships (Pakistan, Iran, Chili, Philippines, Indonesia, Zaire, etc.) in their fight against communism.

The end of the Cold War brought with it the end of most communist and military regimes in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and the establishment of multi-party regimes in almost all African countries, which had hitherto been one-party states with the blessing of the Western powers. The Arab revolutions of 2011 reflected the aspiration of these countries’ populations (particularly the young) to see the establishment of a democratic system and the rule of law. However, they did not produce stable democratic regimes (with the possible exception of Tunisia).

Today, very few regimes would boast of not being democracies (with the exception of the remaining communist countries and absolute monarchies). Even corrupt and authoritarian regimes claim to be democratic and feel obliged to organize a semblance of elections (rigged elections, lack of media freedom, etc.). Almost everywhere in the world, the label “democratic” has become one of the main, if not the sole criterion giving legitimacy to power.

Critiques of democracy

Nevertheless, democracy has long been subject to critique, especially from Marxist thinkers. For them, there is currently no true democracy, because political equality between citizens is rendered impossible by the political, economic, and/or media dominance of the ruling class over the rest of the population. Economic inequality translates into unequal access to knowledge and information, preventing the working classes from fully enjoying their rights and freedoms. In this view, so-called democratic systems are not in fact democratic, since the people are dispossessed of real political power, which in practice is held by a small minority of individuals (oligarchy) controlled by the economic elites. This sense of not being properly represented by their elected officials seems to be growing in many democratic countries. It is reflected in falling voter turnout, the rise of populist parties and greater distrust of politicians.

Representation of the Extreme Right in the European Parliament, 1999-2014

Sources: compiled by Philippe Copinschi ; European Parliament,

Comment: These maps show the escalation of extreme right-wing parties in the European Parliament since 1999. At the beginning of the period, this trend was confined to just a few countries (mostly Austria and Belgium, but also France and Italy) but since 2009 has spread to most EU states. Extreme right-wing parties regularly garner more than 15% of votes (Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and France). However, Spain and Portugal, the Baltic States and Ireland have never elected representatives to the European Parliament in Strasbourg during the period. 

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