Indirect democracy is a political order in which people elect representatives who create laws and policies on their behalf.
Most likely, you live in a country that conducts regular elections, where citizens get to choose their representatives. These representatives make laws and govern the state; so, essentially, people rule the state indirectly and hence the name.
This is also known as representative democracy, and it is contrasted with direct democracy, where citizens are directly involved in decision-making. Indirect/representative democracy is the most famous form of government, with about 60% of the world’s countries adopting it.
While this political order offers a practical way of allowing people to rule themselves, many criticize it for its inadequate representation and corruption. We’ll discuss both the pros and cons of indirect democracy later.
Definition of Indirect Democracy
David Robertson defines representative democracy in the following way:
“Representative democracy is a form of indirect rule by the majority of the electorate. In this system (the only widespread form of democracy in actual practice), political decision-making is done by a small number of people elected by the whole electorate”. (2003)
Usually, the entire country is divided into geographical constituencies. In each constituency, several candidates compete, and depending on the specific electoral laws, the person (or persons) getting the highest votes will be elected.
In this way, every constituency will select one or more representatives, and together, all of them will form a national legislature. Irrespective of the size of the nation, the legislature usually has a few hundred representatives; for example, India’s lower house (Lok Sabha) has 543 seats.
There are various types of representative democracies (such as democratic republics, constitutional monarchies, etc.), which we will discuss in the examples. Nevertheless, they often share the following characteristics:
- Constitution: Most modern democracies have a written constitution, which sets out the fundamental principles, laws, and framework of the government. The constitution also defines the power of the elected representatives, thereby ensuring that their authority is not limitless.
- Independent Judiciary: Besides the constitution, there is also an independent judiciary (such as the U.S. Supreme Court) that keeps a check on the legislators. If it keeps that a law is unjust, it can declare it unconstitutional.
- Choosing Leaders: Elected representatives often have the power to choose leaders amongst themselves. For example, in India, the members of the lower house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) elect the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the winning party.
- Limited Direct Democracy: Even in indirect democracy, the constitution may establish some ways of direct democracy. For example, some countries hold referendums to decide on important issues (such as Brexit), where all citizens vote on a single political question.
See Also: The Many Types of Democracy
Indirect Democracy Examples
- Roman Republic: The Roman Republic (literally “a thing that belongs to the people”) was the first known state in the Western world to have an indirect democracy. It began in 509 BCE, and the Roman government had four assemblies, which consisted of men from tribal groups, military units, plebians, and ordinary citizens. Votes within these assemblies were counted by groups, and the Senate was chosen indirectly by Comitia Centuriata (military units). Women, however, did not have any public voice, and the Roman Republic also collapsed in 27 BCE.
- Medieval England and the UK: In Medieval England, Simon de Montfort held two famous parliaments that shaped the idea of representative democracy. First, in 1258, he and a group of barons removed King Henry III’s unlimited power and effectively wrote England’s first written constitution. Then, in 1265, he held a parliament that included ordinary citizens from towns (Norgate, 1894). Later, the Glorious Revolution (1688) made the Parliament (not the monarch) Britain’s ruling power. Today, the United Kingdom is a parliamentary constitutional monarch.
- The United States of America: In the US, indirect democracy exists at both the national and the state levels. At the national level, citizens elect the President and the officials representing them in the two chambers of Congress (the House of Representatives and the Senate). Similarly, at the state level, the citizens choose the governor and members of state legislatures. The entire framework of the government is set out in the US Constitution, and the US Supreme Court also ensures that the elected representatives are not making any unjust laws.
- India: India has a parliamentary form of government that is roughly based on the British Westminster system. The legislature consists of a parliament with two houses (the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha). The nation is divided into various constituencies and people elect candidates for the Lok Sabha. The party that has a majority in the Lok Sabha then chooses its leader as the Prime Minister, who appoints his executive. As in the US, there is a constitution and an independent judiciary.
- Russia: Russia is quite unlike other representative democracies because it is almost a de facto dictatorship. While there are elections, how competitive or representative they are is quite debatable; moreover, there are severe restrictions on opposition candidates and almost no freedom of expression. Vladimir Putin officially came to power in 1999, and now through constitutional amendments, he may potentially stay in power till 2036. So, even an authoritarian country can seemingly have some elements of indirect democracy.
Indirect vs Direct Democracy
In a direct democracy, all the citizens participate in the decision-making by voting on every decision; in indirect democracy, their representatives do this on their behalf.
In direct democracy or pure democracy, there are no intermediaries; instead, the electorate directly votes on policy decisions. The earliest example of direct democracy is the Athenian democracy of the 5th century BC.
The Athenian democracy was constituted of three parts: an assembly consisting of all male citizens, the boulê made up of 500 citizens, and a jury that was chosen by lot. All male citizens gathered to make decisions, and people controlled the entire political process—from legislation to judiciary.
However, such a system would be impossible in modern nation-states with incredibly large populations. Therefore, we mostly have indirect democracies, where representatives govern on behalf of citizens. Direct democracy still exists in things like referendums, where all citizens come to vote on a particular political question.
Indirect Democracy Pros and Cons
The three significant pros of indirect democracy are:
- Practical & Efficient: An indirect democracy is the only practical form of democracy for a country with a large population. Unlike Ancient Greece, our modern nation-states have incredibly large populations, and having all of them vote on every decision is quite impossible. Indirect democracy makes things much more efficient, by selecting leaders who represent the desires of a large number of people; in the US, just 2 representatives represent the entire state. Moreover, conducting innumerable elections would drain time & money, which could instead be put into public needs (Longley, 2021)
- Expertise: Many scholars argue that direct democracy is not just impractical but also undesirable. Robert Dahl famously said that “politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life”, meaning that most people are busy with their own lives & cannot give much time to politics. Political issues require continuous attention and expertise, which the average citizen does not have. Therefore, it is best that they delegate this task to representatives, whose entire job is to govern people.
- Empowering: In a representative democracy, even if citizens rule indirectly, they feel empowered because they are part of the political process. They are mostly able to express their viewpoints and can often come together in groups to influence government decisions. Moreover, if the government does not work according to them for long, they can replace them in the next elections. So, unlike other forms of government (say totalitarianism), the power still rests with the people, who choose their leaders.
The three main cons of indirect democracy are:
- Inadequate Representation: Indirect/representative democracy may actually be quite unrepresentative. For example, it is common in the UK for a government to be formed by a party that, despite having a majority in the House of Commons, was supported at the polls by perhaps only a third of the total electorate (Robertson). In other words, the power may be in the hands of a group that doesn’t actually represent the majority of the population. And yet, this rather “unrepresentative” group can pass laws for the entire country, even if the majority dislikes them.
- Nature of Representation: The elected representatives often do not work how their electors want. In most modern democracies, there is no binding delegation, that is, the representatives are not obliged to simply follow what their electors want. Instead, the representative is seen to be chosen for their qualities and general principles. Once elected, they become a free agent and can work as they want, irrespective of what their constituent thinks. If the people are not happy with the representative, they have no choice other than to wait for the next election.
- Inefficiency & Corruption: Representative democracy often leads to the creation of massive bureaucracies. These can be incredibly slow to act, especially when major decisions are involved. Moreover, while contesting elections, representatives may misrepresent who they are to gain political power. Once in office, they may use their power for personal financial gain instead of helping their constituency.
Go Deeper: Democracy Pros and Cons
Indirect democracy allows citizens to rule through representatives.
Citizens generally choose representatives through regular elections, and these representatives make laws. There is usually a constitution and independent judiciary to ensure that representatives do not abuse their power.
While indirect democracy is often criticized for its lack of representation and corruption, it is the only practical way of having democracy in modern states. This is why it is the most popular form of government, with over 60% of the world’s countries using some form of it.
Longley, R. (2021). “Representative Democracy: Definition, Pros, and Cons”. Thoughtco. https://www.thoughtco.com/representative-democracy-definition-pros-cons-4589561
Norgate, K. (1894). “Montfort, Simon of (1208?-1265)” . In Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 38. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
Robertson, D. (2003). The Routledge Dictionary of Politics. New York: Routledge.