Democracy and Source of Government Legitimacy

Democracy and Source of Government Legitimacy

Aside from history of how it was structured in Greece and how it spread to other countries, democracy is an outcome of deep social, economic, theoretical and cultural revolutions in recent centuries in Europe. This article discusses how culture of democracy can be shaped and how source of legitimacy can affect democratic ideas. The piece also suggests some points aimed at enabling democracy work in our country.

Oxford English Dictionary defines Democracy as: “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

Development of Democracy in the West

Huge growth in economic relations, economic independence of cities, division of society into different groups, separation of religion from government, different fields of study, development of universities and educational institutes, civil society movements such as women or labour movement, change of ideas about the source of legitimation of government, and clarifying the definition of state and government all are manifestation of democracy in Europe.

In fact, the shift in the source of legitimacy is the centre of these movements; earlier, it was believed that government gets its legitimacy from either a divine source or from an unknown, non-human one; however, gradually, when other grounds were changing, the idea about legitimacy too dramatically changed. This was the start of democratic thinking; people and society became the source for giving legitimacy to a government.
Democracy is not just simply participation of people in governing the society, but it, in fact, is a concept that requires a lot of consideration and analysis. Democracy, predominantly, is a culture, an organization of values and norms in a society. Maybe the most important one is how norms and ideas of a society define the meaning of freedom. Rosa Luxemburg presented a definition of freedom that can help us understand democracy. She says, “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.”

Democracy and Source of Government Legitimacy 1In a society where freedom is the monopoly of one group and others cannot even talk, there is no proper democracy. A society where religious, political and other minorities have no, or only a few rights, freedom has not been in practice properly. Respect to the freedom of everyone, even in the times of crisis, is essential. Based on this, democracy becomes an inalienable part of democracy and we can assert that freedom and democracy cannot be separated from each other.

Democracy, as per modern definitions, is manifested in a society only when most of the people in that society respect each other’s rights and freedoms. So, when a system is based on the supremacy of God, can we say that this system is democracy? When the constitution law of a country like Pakistan says that the source of legitimacy of the government is Allah, or like that of Iran which says that all statutes must be in accordance with Islam, can we say that they are democratic countries? Moreover, when Russian constitution or that of any other country which makes religion be it any sect of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc., is preferred and is touted to be the state religion, can we say people living in those countries have full participation in governance? Do people, after that proclamation in constitution law, are equal and have the same rights and freedoms? Will the minorities in such states enjoy the same rights and freedoms as majorities do?

It quintessentially means that the way we shape our minds, norms and values in the society, the one we truly consider as the source of legitimacy of government, all reflect as to how much extent we are democratic. Therefore, it can be said that, democracy can fare better in a society where all people are equal in all respects; religion, race, colour, financial opportunities, etc.

Historically, because the idea of democracy worked in Western countries, others thought that it’s just a matter of election that brings some political party or some individuals into government and that electoral process will definitely improve the society. The important point that was ignored altogether was the fact that in Western countries, democracy was a whole system of related ideas and norms that have developed through centuries. It means that in those countries all parts of a society are compatible to each other and, therefore, it worked for them and developed their societies.

Democracy and Source of Government Legitimacy 2If we want to have a democratic government, we should first build the basis, and for that purpose, we have to harmonize all parts. We cannot profess that the source of legitimacy is God and that the rules should be according to divine laws while at the same time, in actuality, apply only the Western democratic ideas and ask people to give legitimacy to the government through elections and pass rules and laws through an elected parliament. We cannot have it the both ways, as the famous proverb goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

This dubiousness is the reason why democracy does not work in countries like Pakistan.


In the light of the above discussion, it is suggested that a committee of sociologists, economist, lawyers, philosophers and other people belonging to all segments of the civil society, should come together and by providing an all-inclusive research on our society, its norms, values and future perspectives, develop a long-term plan so that the society is taken forward toward democratic thinking.

Providing such a plan that is exactly compatible to our societal realities can make the society, and the country at large, progress toward a government which works in the best interests of the nation and the masses.

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