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The Rule of the People: History of Democracy

The term democracy comes from the Greek words dēmos and kratos. While what democracy means has evolved, at its core, democracy gives people the right to have a say in the ruling of the community they belong to. Today, democracy mostly takes the form of an election where the public chooses a representative by vote; however, when the term was first coined in ancient Greece, the system was slightly different.


In 6th century BC’s Athenian democracy, legislators were chosen by a lottery, not an election. They followed a principle called Ho Boulomenos (Anyone Who Wishes) to encourage wide participation and freedom in the governing system. They regularly held meetings, called Ecclesia, where approximately six thousand citizens had the right to join and voice their opinions as well as propose a law. The boule, the governing council consisting of 500 members, along with jurors and magistrates oversaw these meetings. The people who had the power to handle legal matters were selected randomly, except for the positions that required expertise. Such aristocratic (rule by the best) positions could be obtained by an election. Despite being a major step towards values of freedom and equality, Athenian standards of inclusion were low compared to our century. While every citizen had the right to join the governing process, the title of citizenship was considerably exclusive. This prevented women, slaves, and foreigners, who made up 80-90% of Athenian society, from participating.


Instances of voting were first found in Sparta, 700 BC. Here, Spartans elected leaders by shouting or giving them scores during the Apella, the public assembly. At the time, Athenians were voting by the use of stone ballots. The Roman Republic, similar to ancient Greece, was not the perfect example of democracy, only a minority were given citizenship status and most of the high-ranking officials were of wealthy or noble families. Despite its shortcomings, the idea of an elected leader survived to exist in our time today and is considered an important step in the history of political theory.


During the Middle Ages, democracy did not seem popular in Europe as it was largely ruled by feudal lords or the clergy. However, some systems resembling democracy remained, such as elections and assemblies. Besides, England had the Magna Carta, a document that protected some of the rights of citizens against unlawful punishment. The Magna Carta inspired the rest of Europe to make similar rules and laws. The emergence of new classes such as the artisans, the nobles, and the religious elite gave rise to the creation of the parliament, taking a direction in separating the powers of the state and restricting the power of the King. The Case of Proclamations lost the King further power, deciding that “the King cannot change any part of the common law, nor create any offense, by his proclamation, which was not an offense before, without parliament.”

In the early modern era, Magna Carta became a topic of interest, leading England to pass the Petition of Right in 1628. The document established that demanding tax without parliamentary consent and arbitrary imprisonment was illegal. In North America, the House of Burgesses was formed which marked the first representative government of the modern era. The Puritans built local democratic governance systems in New England despite the ultimate power still belonging to the British Kingdom.


The French Revolution marked the next big steppingstone to existing democratic systems. Unleashing a wave of concepts like nationalism, which at the time meant the equality and unification of ethnic minorities to ethnic majorities, freedom, and rights, it led to the fall of many empires. Many new countries were formed, and monarchies had fallen. Many oppressed minorities were encouraged to demand their rights and place in governing systems.

Today, in most countries, we all have the right to vote for our representatives. There is no doubt that our systems have their problems, for example, the election process creates professional politicians and campaigns mean that wealth becomes an important factor in who gets elected. Sometimes governments present as democratic despite not functioning democratically. Furthermore, the idea of “majority’s ruling” has been criticized since democracy first began. In the end, democracy aims to give rights and freedom to everyone, for better or for worse.

by Duygu BAYRAM

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