Representative democracy

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The people's representatives gathered in parliament represent the electorate . (Here: session of the 15th German Bundestag on May 23, 2003)

In the form of rule of representative democracy (also known as indirect democracy or indirect democracy ), political decisions, in contrast to direct democracy, are not made directly by the people themselves, but by representatives . The people's representatives are elected and make their own decisions. Since the people's representation is usually a parliament , the system is often called parliamentary democracy . This is to be distinguished from the parliamentary system of government .


The people elected by the people - and only they - represent the people. Representative democracy is the alternative to direct democracy, in which the people of the state make the fundamental political decisions directly in votes. However, parliamentary democracies are also familiar with individual cases of decisions by the electorate in referendums . The representatives of the people derive their legitimation from the election by the electorate, the citizens entitled to vote, from whom the state authority proceeds as sovereign .

Now, however, “the people” is not a single entity with a free and equally directed or even homogeneous will, but a large number of individuals with equal rights, each of whom has its own will. It is therefore the task of democratic systems to organize themselves in such a way that individual interests are balanced and decisions are based on a presumed collective will.

However, since in practice the people of the state cannot decide on every detail of day-to-day political affairs, all existing democracies have organized themselves in such a way that - mostly at several levels such as community, state, state, etc. - individual decisions are delegated to elected representatives. In elections, the people then use personnel decisions to provide the “rough line” on which the elected representatives ideally orient themselves, since their re-election depends on it. These representatives should act as representatives of the electorate by whom they were elected and whose interests and goals they should enforce in the appropriate bodies in the interests of their voters. In this respect, representative democracy is a manifestation of the division of labor as a result of the growing complexity of decision-making.

The influence that the people, as sovereigns, retain on the elected representatives during the term of office differs in the respective forms of democracy. In some systems, such as in Switzerland, the people retain a right of veto over the decisions of the representatives of the people, in others there is only a right of petition , and still others are limited to the right to vote for representative bodies. There is also the demand for the implementation of radical democratic systems that should get by without representatives of the people or despise the principle of representation (for example in participatory democracy ).

Parliamentary democracy is based on the above principles and is derived from parliamentarism , whereby the principle of political representation describes the idea of rule as a form of the institutionalized exercise of power. The most important political decisions are made by a parliament that has emerged from free popular elections and is thus democratically legitimized .

The parliament is also responsible for legislation ( legislative power ). The government can as a legislature to work only derived from Parliament legislative power.

A parliamentary democracy is fundamentally designed for the public . Parliament debates and decides before the people ; its plenary always meets in public. The members of parliament in a parliamentary democracy represent the people and are free to exercise this mandate, not tied to mandates ( free mandate ). Rather, they are only committed to their conscience and, because of their decisions, can only be held accountable by the voters through non-re-election, not recall, as is possible in a council democracy .

Functioning in party democracy

The power relations in parliament result from the distribution of mandates between the parties , which results from the votes and the right to vote . A government is formed after the elections .

The people's ability to make decisions is limited to the choice of representatives (in terms of the right to vote , the top candidates and electoral lists are determined by the parties themselves at party congresses ) and thus the voting out of a government at the election date. In plebiscitary democracy - usually referred to as “direct democracy” - the electorate can make its own political decisions directly during a legislative period , for example in the form of referendums . In contrast, there is the extreme form of direct democracy, in which the people can and must make almost all decisions directly at any time.


Advantages of representative democracy

The representative form of the democratic formation of wills should serve the structuring and rationality of the decision-making. Nadia Urbinati emphasizes how the principle of representation has a positive influence on democratic politics through a spatial and temporal separation between the exchange of arguments and the actual decision. In addition, proportional representation in particular ensures that minorities are heard and taken into account in the political process. Representative democracy thus increases the quality of democratic deliberation .

Decision-making in a representative system can also be made faster and cheaper than a decision by referendum, which takes a lot of time and money. In addition, the proponents of representative decisions state that the representatives can concentrate on their political work and that the political decision-making process is professionalized as a result. Furthermore, for complex issues, such as tax and social legislation, expert knowledge can be used that not every citizen has.

Representative systems are not least considered to be less prone to demagogy , opportunism , populism and “popular anger”. As an example, the proponents of representative systems cite that shortly after gruesome murder cases in surveys the approval of the death penalty increases rapidly.

Disadvantages of representative democracy

The interests of the people can be ignored

Representative democracy concentrates political power in the hands of a potential oligarchy , increasing the likelihood of corruption and lobbying . Since the people completely surrender the actual power to govern with the elections to their elected representatives, they no longer have any legal possibilities to influence political decisions of their representatives. There is therefore a risk that votes will be advertised with election promises, but these promises will not be kept and ultimately governed by the interests of the people in favor of individual interests.

In a modification of this argument, the interests of the entire people are not ignored, but rather those of certain population groups. In contrast, the voices of other parts of the population are systematically more important. So there is an insufficient representation of the population in the respective parliament and a systematic inequality. Examples of this would be the high voting weight of the business elite in the USA or of people with high incomes in Germany.

Dependence on MPs within politics

In the form of parliamentary systems of government , insofar as they are based on proportional representation , critics cite compulsory factions . The government can threaten new elections or punish deviant behavior with hopeless places on the list. These mechanisms limit the free mandate of the MP.

Ability to influence MPs from outside politics

Furthermore, the lack of influence of the voters on factual issues is deplored and pointed out to the danger that the people's representatives would live too far removed from the views of the population without in most cases actually deviating views due to their conscience and a voting behavior disregarding the will of their voters to have been caused. Instead, MPs are often influenced by individual interests and interest groups , as it is easier to influence a group of MPs than a broad mass of voters. The political affairs for political donations in recent years in Germany, the Flick affair and CDU donations scandal , are cited as examples. In particular, large, systemically important or financially strong sectors could influence politics more than smaller consumer or citizens' initiatives .

No immunity to populism

Against the thesis that MPs are allegedly less susceptible to populism than the population, critics argue that this fact does not necessarily have to be true, which can be seen in populist election campaigns and populist elected representatives.

Meaning in practice

A purely representative democracy is very rare. Forms in which representative and direct democratic elements are mixed are more common. One of these forms is plebiscitary democracy , it is the most common form of democracy. Another hybrid form is council democracy .

The Federal Republic of Germany , the United States of America, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are representative democracies.

See also


  • Kathrin Groh: Democratic constitutional law teacher in the Weimar Republic. From constitutional state theory to the theory of the modern democratic constitutional state (= Jus Publicum, Vol. 197), Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2010, ISBN 978-3-16-150222-4 , p. 280 ff.
  • Dolf Sternberger: Origin of Representative Democracy . Eugen Rentsch Verlag, Zurich, Switzerland 1970 ( PDF 3.4 MB ).
  • Quirin Weber, Parliament - Place of Political Decision? Legitimation problems of modern parliamentarism - illustrated using the example of the Federal Republic of Germany, Basler Studien zur Rechtswissenschaft, Series B, Volume 85, Helbing Lichtenhahn Verlag , Basel 2011.

Individual evidence

  1. ^ So Kathrin Groh, Democratic Constitutional Law Teacher in the Weimar Republic , Tübingen 2010, p. 280 .
  2. Nadia Urbinati: Representation as Advocacy: A Study of Democratic Deliberation . In: Political Theory . tape 28 , no. 6 , 2000, ISSN  0090-5917 , p. 758-786 , JSTOR : 192219 .
  3. Martin Gilens, Benjamin I. Page: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens . In: Perspectives on Politics . tape 12 , no. 3 , 2014, ISSN  1537-5927 , p. 564-581 , doi : 10.1017 / S1537592714001595 ( [accessed October 11, 2019]).
  4. Lea Elsässer, Svenja Hense, Armin Schäfer: Systematically distorted decisions? The responsiveness of German politics from 1998 to 2015. Ed .: Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (=  poverty and wealth reporting of the federal government ). 2016, ISSN  1614-3639 .