How do democracies keep their power?

German democracy

Horst Poetzsch

To person

Until 1992, the historian and political scientist Horst Pötzsch was head of the "Political Education in Schools" department of the Federal Agency for Political Education.

Democracy literally means "rule of the people". Having a say in one's own government, freely expressing one's own opinion: in Germany these are relatively recent achievements.

Hambach Castle near Neustadt an der Weinstrasse. On May 27, 1832, around 30,000 people demonstrated here for freedom, democracy and national unity (& copy AP)

Democracies want to be almost all countries in the world today. There is hardly a political regime that does not call itself democratic. Even authoritarian systems of rule in Asia, Africa and Latin America refer to democracy, as do traditionally democratic countries in the western world. This also applied to the collapsed "real socialist" systems of Central and Eastern Europe, which called themselves "people's democracy" or "socialist democracy".

What actually is democracy? The German rendering of the Greek word as "people's rule" is not very meaningful. The people can exercise rulership in various ways. In the small, manageable city-states of ancient Greece, the people, at that time the free men, came together in the marketplace and voted on the laws. In today's major states, this form of direct democracy is no longer practicable. In modern mass democracy, the people can only exercise rule indirectly and indirectly by transferring it to representatives.

The democracy of the Basic Law

Article 20

(1) The Federal Republic of Germany is a democratic and social federal state.

With this article, the Basic Law defines democracy as the basis and framework of our constitutional order. The democracy of the Basic Law can be traced back to a few principles:

Article 20

(2) All state authority emanates from the people. It is exercised by the people in elections and votes and through special legislative, executive and judicial organs.

Popular sovereignty

Every exercise of state power must be legitimized by the people. The state organs must either emerge from popular elections, like the parliaments, or, like the government and the administration appointed by it, be appointed by the elected representatives. The office holders are responsible to the people or their representatives and can be removed from their office.

Representative system

The constitution-makers have opted for a purely representative system. The people do not exercise state power directly, but rather delegate it through elections to representatives, the deputies, who make decisions in the state on their behalf. The votes mentioned in Art. 20, Paragraph 2 are only intended for the case of a reorganization of the Länder. The affected population must approve such a reorganization by referendum.

In contrast, almost all state constitutions contain provisions on petitions and referendums. The decision against including elements of direct democracy in the Basic Law was influenced by the negative experiences during the Weimar Republic. In the last few decades there have been repeated calls for the citizens to be directly involved in political decisions. The success of the citizens' movements in the former GDR gave these demands new impetus. However, the corresponding motions did not find the required two-thirds majority in the 1992 constitutional commission.

Majority principle

In a democracy, the principle applies that the majority decides in elections and votes and that the minority recognizes the majority decision. In return, it has the chance to win its own majority in future elections and votes and can expect that its decisions will then be respected. The majority principle is a compromise solution. The majority decision does not have to be "right". However, the majority principle ensures that conflicts are resolved peacefully.