Democracy: origins and meanings

October 13, 2014 Comments (1) Indonesia & The EU, Political Affairs

The European Union Delegation to Indonesia participated in the seventh Democracy Forum in Bali this weekend. The dialogue on democracy has always been central for the European Union as it is essential to share experiences and views, respecting the principles of equality, mutual respect and understanding.

Democracy has been the stem of the European Union from its very origin, and until today its one of the most pronounced terms on the news.

But what does it actually mean and how did it become such a fundamental element of our society?

The word “democracy” derives from Ancient Greek and means “rule of the people”. We find one of its first manifestations in Aristotle’s Athens. Here, rule of law was practiced through direct democracy as a natural ethical principle. Islam influenced its evolution, by sharing its virtues of toleration and mutual respect of others’ interpretations of life.

From the second millennium, in Europe, a strong political heterogeneity characterized by the self-government of towns and religious dissent within the Christian Church offered a rich framework for the rebirth of democracy. This took place throughout the following centuries thanks to the work of many philosophers and scholars. In Germany, Johannes Gutenberg (1396-1468), invented the press; offering an entirely new way to spread ideas. Dutch Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) wrote about personal free will, introducing the concept of individual responsibility.

Il Principe (The Prince), written by Niccolò Machiavelli in 1513, illustrates the accountability of political leaders, who were until then considered to be representing the will of God. British Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) reintroduced the idea of ​​natural law, the relativity of values and the necessity for mankind to defend laws and justice. But it was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who argued for the right of free speech and the need to separate state and religion to ensure peace and stability in society.

In this context, the first parliaments came into existence. By the eighteenth century, democracy came to be understood as representation. This new type of government, rooted in popular consent, allows citizens to elect deputies that defend their interests and decide matters on their behalf.

Democracy rests upon written constitutions, independent judiciaries and laws that guarantee procedures.

Necessary and essential elements for a democracy are:

1) Existence of periodic, free, private and correct elections of candidates, who hold political office for a limited time;

2) Universal suffrage (men and women without distinction of gender, ethnicity, language, religion or political views) of all permanent adult residents who must also have full rights of citizenship and be equal in face of the law;

3) Pluralism and transparency of information (liberty of the press), for citizens to have equal and effective opportunities in learning about their alternatives and making an educated choice;

4) Freedom of expression, opinion, assembly and association are the seed of democracy. Thanks to these human and civil rights, citizens can gather to demonstrate or to establish political parties and associations. They ensure effective opportunities for expressing views and participating in the political agenda;

5) Majority, with respect of the rights of minorities, is the general rule for election results.

By 1950, the people had claimed ownership over the countries they had fought for, and democracy increasingly became commonly understood as the supreme form of government. This is precisely because of these five elements, all on which the European Union is rooted and advocates in the world. With each enlargement, the EU spreads and requires democratic systems as a prerequisite for membership. This includes, among other things, stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, respect of human rights and protection of minorities. The EU continues to strengthen its work with partners worldwide to support democracy, from the development of open and credible electoral processes, to transparency of the institutions at the service of the citizens and respect of human rights. Indonesia has undertaken an impressive democratic transition with regards to these objectives. This is one the of many reasons why Indonesia is considered a key partner for the EU in South-East Asia and perhaps why Indonesia just hosted the Bali Democracy Forum for the 7th year in a row.



*photo courtesy of

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