Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: History


Athenian Democracy and Republican Rome

Elections date back to ancient times, most notably to the Greek city-states and republican Rome. Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often considered to be the first direct democracy, a system in which citizens vote on public policies and laws directly. Athenian citizens (all free-born men) had the right to participate in the citizen Assembly, the state's sovereign body, and vote both on public matters (such as taxation and war) as well as to elect citizens’ representatives for a variety of offices, including those leading the city-state in wartime.

Elections in republican Rome, from the sixth to the first centuries BC, were also carried out in assemblies, but were segregated in political units by tribes (comita tributa) or by class (comita centuriata), the latter having the power to elect higher magistrates and defined by property ownership and wealth (the basic idea being that those with more wealth and property had the greatest interest in the affairs of the republic). Patricians (the wealthy and large estate owners) were the only ones who could serve in the most powerful magistrate positions, the highest being consul, and thus be appointed senators. By tradition, the Senate had the greatest power to direct policy, allocate funds, and conduct foreign policy, including declare war. There were also tribunes elected by plebeians, the common citizens, who acted as representatives and interceders on behalf of the plebeian class. They could veto actions of the Senate or magistrates that harmed the plebeian class. Ancient Rome was more populist than ancient Athens in many respects, but not as democratic: the upper classes retained dominance through the comita centuriata and the Senate. Both ancient Athens and Rome, it must be pointed out, excluded a majority of their populations from the franchise: women, foreign-born residents, and slaves. Both economies relied heavily on slavery (a fact that plantation owners in the American South pointed to as demonstrating democracy's compatibility with slavery in the US). Still, when compared to other (mostly authoritarian) political systems of their times, both Athens and Rome offer significantly more democratic models.

England: The First Parliament

The 1215 signing of the Magna Carta (Great Charter) by King John in England established the basis for the world's oldest and most enduring elected representative parliament. The Magna Carta established the principle that the monarch was subject to the rule of law and before imposing taxes or waging war had to consult his or her subjects in the form of an assembly that included representatives of both the upper and lower classes. During the reign of King Edward III in the 14th century, the assembly (Parliament) was divided into an upper House of Lords (those with hereditary rank and the high clergy) and a lower House of Commons, with representatives from the counties and boroughs. Notably, the counties and boroughs set their own rules for electing representatives. Some even adopted general suffrage for adult males. For county representation, the Parliament established a voting requirement in 1430 that adult male citizens must have taxable property generating a minimum income of 40 shillings (equivalent to 2 pounds), a substantial amount at the time. Since Parliament never changed the standard, however, by the mid-1600s this class of voters grew by inflation to include most adult male property owners.

By 1642, the House of Commons represented a constituency capable of raising an army to fight a recalcitrant king (Charles I), who took to arms to defend his prerogatives over religion, taxes and war. In defeat, Charles I was tried, sentenced for High Treason, and beheaded. The Commonwealth established by the House of Commons was brief and the monarchy was soon restored. But thereafter the House of Commons increased its powers over political affairs. In 1688, the more peaceful Glorious Revolution established Parliament’s ultimate power to determine succession and expanded protections of citizens’ rights. Over the next two centuries, the House of Commons evolved to exert fuller power over the country’s political affairs — and the people’s right to determine them through elections. But further expansions of the franchise did not take place until the mid–19th century. General male suffrage, along with suffrage for single women over the age of 30, was adopted only in 1918 in recognition of the sacrifices of both men and women in World War I. Full suffrage for women was achieved only in 1928.

The US Model

As the modern world's most established representative democracy, the United States has a long history of holding general elections for both the executive and legislative branches of government. In the country's earliest years, however, the franchise was surprisingly limited. The US Constitution itself did not establish a national standard for voting, leaving electoral qualifications to be set by the states. The states, by tradition, generally adopted similar property requirements as the British House of Commons in the belief that only those with a rightful interest in the state (ownership of property) could possess sufficient education, reason, and interest to decide upon its affairs. Over time, states adopted general suffrage, which became common by the mid-19th century, but its practice was usually limited to adult white men. Women’s suffrage took until 1920, after a century of agitation, for the passage of the 19th Amendment to guarantee voting rights for women (although it was adopted earlier in some states, the first being Wyoming in 1869, when it was still a territory). Equal suffrage, however, was another matter.

An Enduring Struggle for Suffrage — and Freedom

In the United States, the most enduring struggle for suffrage and freedom has been that of African Americans. The US Constitution left slavery in place and the infamous "three-fifths compromise" (counting slaves as “three-fifths of a person” for purposes of apportioning representation) strengthened the political influence of Southern states in Congress to protect and expand slavery to new territories. Even as slavery was abolished in northern states, free black citizens were routinely denied the right to vote even after adoption of general suffrage.

1963 March on Washington.

In 1870, following the Union's victory in the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, Congress and the states adopted the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution. It guaranteed that “the right of citizens . . . to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Yet when Reconstruction and federal oversight of the southern states ended, blacks quickly faced a new form of white oppression in the form of Jim Crow. This system of state and local laws institutionalized segregation and discrimination that denied them their civil rights. (In practice, Jim Crow in the South meant much more: it gave protection to a regime of violence and lawlessness against African Americans both in general and if they dared to assert their rights.) Poll taxes, so-called literacy tests, and other obstacles to voting were adopted that were applied only to black citizens. Blacks were systematically disenfranchised soon after having been freed from bondage and “guaranteed” the right to vote as full citizens. In a series of decisions, the Supreme Court blatantly ignored the post-Civil War 14th and 15th amendments by allowing Jim Crow laws to stand.

Over the next century, African Americans struggled against systematic discrimination and racism, using various non-violent methods. In the 1940s, political pressure organized by A. Philip Randolph through the March on Washington Movement resulted in presidential orders by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman banning segregation in defense industries, the federal workforce, and the US armed forces. In the 1940s and 1950s, a series of Supreme Court decisions (most famously Brown v. Board of Education) overturned previous rulings and began to give substance to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee to all citizens of “equal protection” under the law. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, symbolized by the 250,000-strong 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, propelled passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public places and discrimination in employment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned literacy tests for voting and established the federal government’s authority to intervene against voting discrimination by states with a history of such discrimination (see also the Essential Principles and History section in Majority Rule, Minority Rights).

While full equality remains elusive, these and other civil rights laws led to tangible improvements in political participation and representation for black Americans. The percentages of blacks who are registered and vote in national elections has increased substantially over time. Indeed, in the 2012 general election, the percentage of black turnout exceeded that of white Americans for the first time. In addition, African Americans have achieved increased representation in most state legislatures and in the House of Representatives. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first African American to be elected president of the United States with an electoral college victory of 365 to 173 and a clear national majority of the vote, 53 to 46 percent, representing all ethnic communities. He was reelected by a similar, though slightly smaller, margin in 2012. Still, minority representation in the Senate is small. Following Barack Obama’s departure from the US Senate, two African Americans were appointed by Governors to serve interim terms and subsequently two were elected to full terms, Republican Tim Scott from South Carolina (in 2014 and 2016) and Democrat Cory Booker from New Jersey (in 2014).

Despite the general advancement of electoral representation for African Americans since the 1960s, there has been a steady erosion of voting rights through state laws mandating photo and other forms of state-issued IDs as well as various restrictions on voting by limiting early periods and polling places. The 2014 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder revoked Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — special federal oversight over states with a previous history of denying voting rights to African Americans and other minorities. Overall, twenty-two states with Republican majorities in state legislatures have adopted more restrictive laws since 2010; twenty-two are currently considering further or new restrictions. Generally these restrictions on registration and voting have limited participation of older and poorer minority voters in elections; it was the case in five key states won by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election (see Washington Post article in Resources).

Universal and Equal Suffrage

As American history indicates, a fully participatory democratic political system is not achieved easily. Often, greater participation of citizens in a democracy emerges from a long and difficult struggle to expand the right to vote and other freedoms to all groups. The founders of the United States, such as James Madison, were by and large republicans who believed that some property ownership should be necessary to exercise the voting franchise. By contrast, the more radical French Revolution in 1789 established the principle that citizen participation in politics is a civil right and this was included in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Although the French Revolution descended into terror and its ultimate downfall led to the rule of Napoleon as “emperor,” the republic's initial spirit of equal citizenship became the basis for future French republics and has been a source of democratic inspiration around the world.

As representative political systems evolved, popular social and political movements inspired by both liberal and radical philosophies achieved general suffrage based on citizenship and not property ownership. Women's suffrage lagged general male suffrage, but not by long. Wyoming was the first US territory to establish women’s suffrage in 1869; New Zealand was the first country to grant universal suffrage including women in 1893; and Finland was the first European country to do so in 1906. As the first democracy in the Muslim world, Azerbaijan adopted universal suffrage including women in 1918 (see Country Study in this section). The United States and the United Kingdom adopted full women's suffrage only in 1920 and 1928, respectively. France, although being the first to adopt general male suffrage in 1792, achieved women's suffrage only after the country's liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. In many other countries, such as in Latin America, universal suffrage took longer to adopt. Venezuela, for example, did not lift property, literacy, and other restrictions on voting until 1946 (see Country Study in this section).

Yemeni women voting in 2006.

The New Normal

Today, full and equal suffrage is today considered a universal principle specified in Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it is the norm for most of the 125 electoral democracies listed in the Survey of Freedom in the World 2015, a number that has increased substantially from the first survey in 1972 (42 countries). It must be said, however, that not all countries considered electoral democracies are listed as “free” in the Survey. Freedom House counts 88 such countries, meaning that in 45 electoral democracies other norms are not fully respected and elections may not reflect the people’s will. Indeed, while the number of electoral democracies has increased, the overall trend in Freedom House’s indicators for the twelve categories of freedom it measures has gone down for the tenth straight year. There are many indicators of a growing “democracy deficit,” even in Europe and North America, propelling a number of anti-democratic political parties and candidates to political representation and leadership of countries (see Resources).

To further foster free, fair and regular elections as a universal norm, several international institutions monitor elections around the world, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations, as well as parliamentary, political party, and civic monitoring organizations from the European Union (EU) and the United States. Within countries, domestic observers are another check on abuse by national and local officials. International observers are likely to be found in countries seeking to transition to democracy or looking for international legitimation of political changes. Even dictators allow observer teams into the country in the belief that the government controls the process so well that observers can be fooled into giving nondemocratic elections a seal of approval (see, for example, the case of the 2003 presidential elections in the Azerbaijan Country Study in this section).

Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen
representatives. . . . The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be
expressed in periodic and genuine elections
which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be
held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures."

Article 21, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

If consent of the governed is the most fundamental concept of democracy, its most essential right is that of citizens to choose their leaders in free, fair, and regular elections. Other rights are necessary to democracy; elections by themselves are insufficient. Yet the right to freely elect one's representatives and to influence the political direction of one's government is democracy's indispensable political foundation.

Suffragettes marching down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1917.

Without free elections, there is neither the possibility for citizens to express their will nor the opportunity for citizens to change their leaders, approve policies for the country, address wrongs, or protest the limitation of their rights. Elections establish the citizenry's and the individual's political rights. They are the ongoing representation of the consent of the governed (see previous section).

Around the world, including in the United States, millions of people have braved violence, intimidation, and other obstacles to demand the right to express their will through the ballot box. Often, students and youth have played leading roles in this worldwide epic, such as the Otpor movement in Serbia, which helped to overthrow the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, or the Iranian Green Revolution, which protested the stealing of elections in 2009. In the United States, young people played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement, including thousands of students who challenged segregation throughout the South or volunteered to register black citizens to vote.

Representative and Electoral Systems

The majority of democracies have chosen to establish parliamentary systems, in which elections for the legislature also determine the party in control of the executive branch. This means that the party (or coalition) with a majority of seats in parliament forms the government. (Although there are occasions of minority coalitions forming governments, they typically have majority support in parliament.) In a presidential system, such as in the United States, or in a mixed presidential-parliamentary system, such as in France and Poland, there are separate elections for the head of the executive branch and the legislature. Although parliamentary systems may reflect more directly the citizens' will, presidential or mixed systems may provide greater checks and balances on the exercise of power (see also Constitutional Limits).

There are two main types of electoral systems: proportional and direct. In proportional systems, seats in parliament are apportioned according to the percentage of the vote a party receives nationally or in regions; direct elections are determined by a majority or plurality vote in specific districts, usually divided proportionally to the population. But there are many variations on these systems, and many countries use a combination of proportional and direct systems for their elections. Each system raises complex questions. For example, should a turnout of less than 50 percent be considered a valid expression of the people's will? Should a plurality of the vote be sufficient to determine the majority in parliament or the national office of president? Should there be a threshold vote for a party to enter parliament or should any party receiving votes be able to have a seat? There are no simple answers. Often, these decisions depend on a country's political history and culture (see Resources). Often, however, these questions are determined based on the desire to manipulate an election’s outcome.

Free, Fair, and Regular

As with the definitions for electoral and representative systems, there are no precise definitions for "regular, free, and fair elections." International human rights conventions have established a basic consensus. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21 states that "the will of the people . . . shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures." the world, including in the United States, millions of people have braved violence, intimidation, and other obstacles to demand the right to express their will through the ballot box.

Regular or periodic means holding elections on a set schedule known to the electorate, either on a specified day or range of dates or within a particular time frame. Federal law in the U.S., for example, requires elections to be held on the first Tuesday of November of every even year (except if it falls on the 1st) for electing representatives and senators and every four years for electing a president. Parliamentary systems usually require elections to be held within four or five years from the previous election, but they may be called earlier as determined by the party or coalition of parties in the majority. This gives the ruling party some advantage in setting the date. Still, citizens are guaranteed the opportunity to change their leaders and to support new policies if they choose within a reasonable timeframe. No government stays in power indeterminately.

Genuine means that elections are free and fair. Electoral laws must offer equal conditions and opportunities for citizens to have access to polling stations and to vote. They also must offer equal conditions and opportunities for all parties and candidates taking part in them. Such equality requires the ability of political parties and candidates to register for elections without unreasonable requirements (such as paying special fees or having a minimum income); that they have balanced access to the media; that laws governing the financing of campaigns are the same for all candidates and do not give one candidate or party an unequal advantage; and that the electoral process is fair and not skewed toward a party or candidate. Overall, political freedoms of expression, conscience, association, and assembly must be protected so that candidates and parties can campaigns without hindrance and have the opportunity to convey their political messages and platforms to the voters.

Universal suffrage means that every citizen has the right to vote regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical disability, sexual orientation, property considerations, or level of education. Universal suffrage also means that there can be no burdensome impediments against any citizen’s registering to vote or casting a ballot (such as a poll tax or fee). Only legitimate requirements such as age, residence, and citizenship may restrict the right to vote. The ideal is to have maximum participation in elections of all adult citizens eligible to vote. To achieve this, some countries, such as Australia and Uruguay, make voting a legal obligation and enforce penalties (usually fines) for not showing up at the polls.

It should be noted that the principle of universal suffrage is distinct from the principle of one person, one vote. The latter applies more to political systems with direct representation. But both principles mean that everyone who is qualified has a right to vote and no person's vote can be counted twice. A secret ballot means that no one — except for the voter — knows how each person has voted. If a voter's choice is observable by others, voters may be subject to intimidation and reprisals by the party in power or by a party seeking power. Elections would then have no integrity. Thus, protecting the right to a secret ballot is essential to a free election.

There is one more essential requirement. For democracy to work, everyone must agree to accept the legitimate results of freely held elections. The people and parties who lose power or who have failed to gain it must be willing to accept defeat. If the loser refuses to accept the winner, the election's legitimacy is diminished and the political system is likely to be marked by conflict and instability. A key test for a democracy is the successful and peaceful transfer of power from one party to another. Indeed, this is a continuous test for any democracy, even established ones.

Controversy in Democracies

Within any of these broad definitions, there is a lot of room for debate and controversy. What can be done to ensure the independence of the election process? Should candidates and parties have spending limits? Or limits on campaign speech? Should there be rules for media access? And so on. most countries, it is possible to discover a rich history of electoral abuse, including gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, fraud and voter intimidation. . . . The United States itself has a checkered history.

In European countries, for example, there are strict limits on spending. In the United States, the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo (1976) decision determined that individual candidates may spend an unlimited amount of their own money on their own elections. More recently, in the famous Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2010, the Supreme Court overturned sections of the 2003 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that had passed Congress in 2003. While the Supreme Court affirmed some provisions of the Act (including limiting spending by campaigns themselves and banning foreign contributions), it struck down the law’s restrictions on corporations, unions, and individuals to use their own funds to support parties and candidates independently of political campaigns. The court majority stated this was an unconstitutional limitation on free speech. The decision has resulted in the creation of “Super-PACs” (Political Action Committees) that receive funds, generally from the wealthy, in order to advocate for or against candidates, programs, or public referenda. Alone, the wealthy Koch brothers, who support conservative causes and candidates, pledged to contribute nearly $1 billion in election-related activity (on behalf of candidates and referendums or in other voter-influencing activities) in the 2016 election. The controversial Citizens United decision is an example of the ongoing debate over what constitutes appropriate limitations on the conduct of elections. Many politicians and civic groups from different political parties in the US have called for a reversal of the Citizens United decision on the basis that money should not be considered speech and the type of unlimited spending by wealthy people like the Koch brothers greatly distorts elections as well as policies and prevents any level playing field.

In most countries, it is possible to discover a rich history of electoral abuse, including gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, fraud, and voter intimidation. Such abuses show that the integrity of democracy is not an inevitable outcome of elections; that integrity must be vigorously and continuously protected by each country's citizens. The United States itself has a checkered history, but following the passage of the Voting Rights Act empowering minorities, especially African Americans, to vote, it became more of a model of an open, free and fair system (see History). That is no longer the case in more recent elections: its 2016 presidential election was marred by both foreign and domestic intervention, while its national elections for president and Congress took place amid stark increases in voting restrictions, voter suppression, and extreme gerrymandering following the repeal by the Supreme Court of basic provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Dictatorships and Elections

It is a measure of the success of democracy that even dictatorships hold elections. But elections in dictatorships are not free, fair or genuine, as stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but rather shams or political spectacles designed to ensure their regimes’ continuation in power under a veneer of legitimacy. In such countries, political parties are restricted by the ruling government or prevented from even appearing on the ballot. When opposition parties are allowed, dictators ensure their victory in elections by setting unfair rules or simply fabricating the electoral results. Sometimes, however, dictators wrongly assess their own popularity and allow a relatively free vote to be held in the belief that they cannot lose. Through voter mobilization and vigilant oversight, citizens have used such opportunities to make democratic breakthroughs (as recently in Burma, Poland, the country study in this section, in 1989, and Chile in 1988). Other dictators respond to public dissatisfaction by strengthening their control over political parties and the election process (as recently in Egypt, Iran or, in this section, Azerbaijan). In many totalitarian countries, ruling political parties, operating according to a specified ideology, simply provide themselves with the institutionalized right to rule through their constitutions, as in the former Soviet Bloc countries, which called themselves "people's democracies" or “people’s republics.” (For current examples, see country studies of China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam where citizens are forced to vote in staged elections for candidates only of ruling communist parties or satellite parties.)

The Insufficiency and Abuse of Election

Dictatorships make evident the notion that the holding of an election, in and of itself, is insufficient to establish or sustain democracy. Elections are the sine qua non of democracy, but without democracy's other essential elements — such as constitutional limits, the protection of basic human rights and minority rights, accountability and transparency, a multiple party system, economic freedom, and the rule of law — elections are not a guarantee of freedom. Indeed, the holding of elections absent other democratic rights means that those elections cannot be considered genuine and are simply a means of political manipulation by those who seek absolute power (country studies of “not free” countries in this and other sections linked above). elections ever legitimate the overturning of established democratic governance . . .? The terrible consequences of the Nazi regime alone make clear the answer must be a resounding 'No.'

Even when elections are conducted freely, they are not a guarantee of a democratic outcome. When democratic institutions are or become weak, elections may easily be used by violent or authoritarian political groups to manipulate the will of the people and seize control of the government. During the 1930s in Germany, Adolf Hitler rose to power by participating in elections, but then gained complete political control through intimidation and thuggery (see Country Study of Germany). Another example is the Gaza Strip, a part of the Palestinian Authority, where the Islamist group Hamas used elections to seize power, institute a brutal internal dictatorship, and carry out an ongoing terrorist  campaign aimed at the destruction of Israel.

Can elections ever legitimate the overturning of established democratic governance, the imposition of a dictatorship, or revolutionary violence? The terrible consequences of the Nazi regime alone make clear that the answer must be a resounding "No." As a rule, dictatorships that claim to hold genuine elections manipulate and distort them, making clear their intent to prevent real competition and the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power. Democracy is based on political freedom. Its main foundation, the holding of free elections, cannot legitimately be used to introduce political conditions of organized violence or state repression that prevent genuine and free elections from being held again. In such instances, elections are not signs of democracy, but rather a mask to anti-democratic political structures. 


The Consent of the Governed: Resources


Essential Principles

Chenoweth, Erica and Stephen, Maria J. Why Civic Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict (2011). New York: Columbia University Press (link).
     See also original essay, "Why Civil Resistance Works," International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Summer 2008), 7–44.

Crick, Bernard. Democracy: A Very Short Introduction (2003). New York: Oxford University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. The Leviathan (1951). New York: Penguin. See also “Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Declaration of Independence, National Government Archives.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). See also "John Locke: Political Philosophy," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). See also "Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

South Africa

Economist magazine: Topics Index: South Africa.
   Selected Article: Nelson Mandela: Invictus (Dec. 14, 2013).
The New York Times: World Topics: South Africa.
   See especially obituary of Nelson Mandela.

Carlin, John. Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation (2009). New York: Penguin Books Reprint Edition.

Lodge, Tom. Mandela: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Mandela, Nelson.
   Address to the People of Cape Town on the occasion of his inauguration as state president, Cape Town, May 9, 1994.
   A Long Walk to Freedom: An Autobiography (1995). South Africa: Macdonald Purnell Publishers.

Paton, Alan. Cry the Beloved Country, A Novel (2003). New York: Scribner.

Right2Know Campaign (home page)

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to most current year Country Reports and drop down menu for South Africa).

Recommended Films
   "Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony" (2002), a film directed by Lee Hirsch.
   "Tsotsi" (2005), a film directed by Gavin Hood (UK Film & TV Production Company).
   "Invictus" (2009), directed by Clint Eastwood.
   "The Long Walk to Freedom" (2013), directed by Justin Chadwick.


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Bolivia.
   Selected Article: “From Tap to Socket: Nationalizing Utilities in Bolivia,” Jan. 19, 2013.
The New York Times: World Topics: Bolivia.

New York Review of Books
   Guillermoprieto, Alma. "The New Bolivia?” and “The New Bolivia II." (Aug. 10 and Sept. 21, 2006).

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Bolivia).


Economist magazine: Topics Index: Iran. See e.g.,
   Selected Article: “Aya-toiling: Iran’s Banned Trade Unions,” (April 20, 2013).
   Selected Article: “Get it Off, Put it On: A Culture War” [over leggings], (June 14, 2014).
The New York Times: World Topics: Iran.

Bakhash, Shaul. "Letter from Evin Prison." New York Review of Books (Sept. 22, 2005).

Ebadi, Shirin. “Nobel Lecture” (December 3, 2003).

International Human Rights Campaign for Iran (home page). See, e.g., 
   "Happy Video Youths Receive Suspended Flogging and Prison Sentences” (Sept. 18, 2014).
   “Two Poets Sentenced to Flogging and 11 and 9½  Years in Prison” (Oct. 15, 2015).

Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (home page). See, e.g.,
   “Tour of Ward 2A of Evin Prison.”

Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003). New York: Random House.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: A Story of a Childhood (2003), a graphic novel. New York: Pantheon Books.

U.S. Department of State Human Rights Country Reports (go to current year Country Report drop down menu for Iran).

Recommended Films
   "Boycott" (1986), a film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Makhmalbaf Film House).
   "Children of Heaven" (1997), a film directed by Majid Majidi.
   "The Color of Paradise" (1999), a film directed by Majid Majidi ( Varahonar Company).
   "Persepolis" (2007), an animated film written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincente Parannaud.

The Consent of the Governed: Country Studies — Islamic Republic of Iran

Iran Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6; Political Rights: 6; Civil Liberties: 6. 



The territory of Iran, previously known as Persia, was ruled by monarchical dynasties or occupied and dominated by foreign powers for nearly all of its recorded history dating to classical times. There were only brief periods in the 20th century during which there was some measure of parliamentary democracy. In 1979, a revolution against the repressive regime of Shah Pahlevi, inspired by the exiled cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a theocratic government. Since then, Iran’s clerical rulers have maintained a strong grip on the country's politics, economy, society, and culture. Pro-democracy movements that emerged in the late 1990s and in 2009 were suppressed by force and repression. Today, dissidents oppose the regime and its policies at risk of their life and freedom. In the 2013 presidential elections, the cleric and lawyer Hassan Rouhani, the regime’s former negotiator regarding its nuclear program and considered a moderate for advocating better relations with the West, won a large victory over other harder-line candidates.

Iran is the 17th-largest country in the world by area (slightly smaller than Alaska) and 18th largest by population (approximately 79 million people in 2015). It borders seven countries (Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan) and three bodies of water (the Caspian Sea to the north and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman to the south). The economy is dominated by oil: Iran possesses the world's fourth-largest oil reserves. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran ranked 29th in the world in 2014 in total GDP in nominal measurements (at about $440 billion). In per capita GDP, however, Iran ranked much worse, indicating wide disparities in Iran’s distribution of wealth: 93rd in nominal GNI (gross national income) per capita in 2015 ($5,048 a year). Poverty and unemployment rates remain in double digits. 

Iran’s growth rates and economic conditions worsened over the previous decade due to a severe sanctions regime, including bans on oil sales, imposed by the United Nations to deter Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. After prolonged U.N.-authorized negotiations with the P5+1 group (the 5 members of the Security Council and Germany), Iran agreed in July 2015 to restrict its nuclear program to peaceful purposes for fifteen years in exchange for relief from international sanctions, including on significant frozen assets held in international banks.


Cyrus the Great

The Iranian state dates back to Cyrus II, who united several kingdoms into the Persian Empire in 550 BC. Known as Cyrus the Great, he also conquered most of the Middle East and Asia Minor to form the world’s first extended empire. Uniquely for that time, Cyrus instituted a policy of religious tolerance, which included ordering the return of Jews held in captivity in Babylon. He also issued the Cylinder of Cyrus, which lists allowances and freedoms that Cyrus granted to nations under his rule, including the right to reject his rule altogether. To show the Cylinder’s historical importance as the earliest known example of limited rule and tolerance of local religions and customs, the United Nations displays a replica inscribed on its headquarters building in New York City.

Cyrus Cylinder

From Alexander to the Qajars

Cyrus's Achaemenid dynasty fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC. After Alexander's death, one of his generals founded the new Seleucid dynasty, which controlled much of present-day Iran. Seleucid rule was followed by two long-lasting Persian dynasties, the Parthian (247 BC–AD 224) and the Sassanid (AD 224–642). Muslim Arabs invaded in 636 and largely subdued Persia by 650, converting it to Islam. Thereafter, the country was ruled by a series of Arab and Turkic dynasties, until being conquered in the 13th century by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, whose dominion stretched from China. After more than two centuries of Mongol and Turkic rule, the Safavid dynasty was established in northwestern Iran in 1502, which declared Shiite Islam as the official religion. Iran today remains predominantly Shiite. The Safavid dynasty fell in the early 19th century, ultimately succeeded by the Qajar dynasty. 

The Constitutional Revolution

The country’s history of empires and dynasties was interrupted at the beginning of the 20th century by the Constitutional Revolution of 1905–06, which established Iran's first elected parliament and a constitutional monarchy. The Qajar shahs, however, resisted parliamentary government and drew on Russian and British influence to limit constitutional rule. The 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement delineated respective spheres of control in Iran’s south and north to Britain and Russia, with a "neutral" area in the center. In the south, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was established by agreement with Shah Qajar to extract energy resources near the Persian Gulf. The efforts of Constitutionalists to defend the parliament’s powers were hampered by World War I, which saw increased Russian and British military presence. Iran’s parliament again asserted its powers after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which weakened Russia’s imperial influence, and also later successfully rejected Britain’s attempt gain greater control over the country. 

The Restoration of the Shahs—and Their Final Fall 

A young army officer named Reza Khan organized a coup in 1921 and four years later he had the parliament officially depose the now largely powerless Qajar dynasty and declare him the new monarch under the name Reza Shah Pahlevi. Over the following years, he introduced a number of reforms in an effort to modernize Iran, while at the same time maintaining a heavy repressive hand to stifle internal dissent. The Shah’s refusal to help the Allies in World War II led Great Britain and the Soviet Union to invade the country, now formally named Iran, in 1941. The occupiers forced Reza Shah to abdicate in favor of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlevi.

Under pressure from the United States, allied troops withdrew from the country by 1946, after which parliament again reasserted its powers. In 1951, the parliament voted to nationalize the oil industry, which would have ended the British role in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. A nationalist proponent of the plan, Muhammad Mossadegh, became prime minister despite opposition by the shah, who was forced into temporary exile. In 1953, monarchists and military officers, with support from the United States and Britain, returned the shah from exile to oust Mossadegh. The shah re-established full control over the state and signed an agreement for a joint British, Dutch, French, and US oil consortium to develop Iran's reserves. 

Under Shah Pahlevi’s rule, Iran began a period of modernization, which included land reform and improving women’s rights. Measures to open the country, however, were accompanied by a system of increasing political repression and torture carried out by the notorious SAVAK secret police forces. Repression and growing economic inequality created greater and greater resentment within the population and ultimately led to a popular revolution in early 1979 that resulted in the creation of the Islamic Republic.

Consent of the Governed

For most of its history, Iran was governed by either foreign empires or hereditary dynasties exercising absolute control. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–06 was thwarted by foreign interference and the re-establishment of monarchical rule in 1924. Following World War II, the nationalist government led by Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh was ousted in 1953 by Shah Pahlevi, backed by the US and the United Kingdom. There was secular opposition to the Shah’s rule, but the Islamic movement led by an exiled cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, also gained strength as the Shah’s modernization campaign failed to improve the economy and became associated with inequality, corruption, and harsh repression. Joint secular and religious opposition protests caused Shah Pahlevi to flee the country in January 1979. In early February, Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from Paris and was greeted by a cheering crowd of two to three million. He quickly established an interim government that supplanted a caretaker regime. He then called for a quick plebiscite to establish an Islamic Republic without debate over the content of the constitution or established democratic procedures to ensure a fair plebiscite. An authoritarian theocracy, a state ruled by religious leaders, quickly replaced the secular authoritarian regime.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

The Islamic Republic

The plebiscite approved an interim constitution based on the principle of velayat-e faqih (guardianship by the Islamic jurist). Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader and cemented theocratic rule through amendments to the constitution that effectively prevent the people from changing their government or constitution. Formally, there is a division of government into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with general elections for president and a parliament (called the Majlis), which are staggered every four years. All branches of government, however, are effectively overseen by the Supreme Leader, a high cleric selected by an Assembly of Experts made up only of high clerics. 

The Supreme Leader 

The constitution’s establishment of theocracy is complete. For one, the Supreme Leader is granted the power to appoint the heads of the key levers of power: the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the chief of the judiciary, and the head of state television and radio. The Supreme Leader also controls the appointment of the Guardian Council, which is tasked with vetting political candidates for all elected offices and reviewing legislation passed by the parliament. In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini created another body, the Council of Expediency, fully appointed by the Supreme Leader, with power to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. While the constitution formally establishes some separation of constitutional responsibilities for running the government, in practice the Supreme Leader has supervisory powers over all parts of government. During his rule, Khomeini exercised enormous influence. He forced out the initial secular prime minister and immediately set Iran on an anti-Western course by encouraging the takeover of the US embassy in 1979 and deliberately encouraging a deep paranoia of Western, and particularly US, influence. He imposed a strict set of Islamic laws that banned informal contact between unrelated men and women, forced women to cover their heads and bodies in public, among many other restrictions. 

The constitution stipulated that after Khomeini died, a new supreme leader would be chosen by the Assembly of Experts. This is a body of senior clerics supposedly “elected” by popular vote in staggered terms of eight years. In practice, there is no real choice since all candidates for the Assembly are vetted by the Guardian Council. (In 2015, even Khomeini’s grandson, an imam reported to have more moderate views, was blocked from running for the Assembly of Experts.) Upon Khomeini's death in 1989, the Assembly appointed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. While the Assembly of Experts has the responsibility to review the Supreme Leader’s actions and retains the formal power to recall him if he violates the constitution, the Supreme Leader’s overall powers to control the membership of both the Guardian Council (and thus the Assembly of Experts), negates the formal power to change leaders.

A Reform Movement Is Thwarted 

In the mid-1990s, a reformist movement arose around student protests and propelled the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997. While approved by the Guardian Council, he had campaigned as a moderate for president against harder-line backers of theocratic rule. Using their limited powers, Khatami and his allies in parliament took steps to liberalize the media, encourage the expression of opinion, allow use of the internet, free up parts of the economy, and even ease enforcement of Islamic social controls. Reformist parties supporting Khatami won some 80 percent of the vote in the 1999 municipal elections and about two-thirds of the seats in the Majlis in the 2000 elections. In 2001, Khatami won reelection as president with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

The regime’s theocratic institutions, however, began to re-assert their power at the direction of the Supreme Leader. The Supreme Religious Council and the Expediency Council vetoed legislation and counteract reforms through decrees. For the 2004 parliamentary elections, the Guardian Council struck 2,000 reformist candidates from the electoral list for parliament for violating “principles of sovereignty and national unity” or “questioning the Islamic basis of the Republic.” After regaining control over the Majlis, the theocratic leadership then ensured the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, previously the mayor of Tehran and considered a hardline supporter of the Iranian Revolution, in the 2005 presidential elections. Vote rigging ensured the defeat of a relatively moderate cleric, former President Rafsanjani.

The Ministry of Security, directly responsible to the Supreme Leader, carried out increasingly repressive policies, ordering the closure of reformist media, non-governmental organizations, and political parties and arresting outspoken journalists, human rights lawyers, and students. Independent trade union leaders were imprisoned after organizing strikes against the government’s economic and wage policies. At the same time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the most important vehicle for consolidating the revolutionary regime in 1979–81, resumed its role as the regime’s ultimate enforcer. It aggressively sought out violators of Islamic proscriptions and national security laws. Anyone arrested by the IRGC is tried before its revolutionary tribunals, not the civil courts, and so has no rights to due process. The IRGC targeted women through enforcement of Islamic restrictions on movement, attire, social contact, and political representation. Students were arrested for minor religious infractions, such as allegedly violating fasting rules during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Three prominent Iranian Americans were arrested for conspiring to foment revolution, part of a campaign to “root out foreign influences.” Although the three were later released after an international campaign, dual citizens have continued to face arrest and charges of treason.

Civil society and cultural and human rights activists continued to organize opposition to the government’s policies. This was symbolized by the efforts of human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi. Her non-violent advocacy for women’s and human rights had earned her the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize (see link to her Nobel Lecture in Resources). She used the resulting international recognition to further her work, but in the face of death threats she went into exile in 2009 and currently lives in London.

A Second Revolution Is Crushed

Ahmadinejad campaigned on populist promises to redistribute oil revenues to the poor through subsidies and reduced-rate loans, but these pledges went largely unfilled. His focus as president was to foster Iran’s nuclear weapons program, harden a confrontational stance towards the West, and call for the destruction of Israel. Despite the threat of sanctions, Iran continued to refuse cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its nuclear program to ensure it was not being used to develop nuclear weapons — as was widely suspected and later confirmed by the IAEA. In 2006, following a report by the IAEA detailing Iran’s lack of cooperation and its likely development of nuclear weapons, the United Nations initiated sanctions on Iran that increased in severity over the next years.  In the 2009 presidential elections, the Guardian Council approved three candidates to challenge Ahmadinejad, who appeared to be still favored by the theocratic leadership. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister, campaigned as a reformer and emerged as the main challenger by confronting Ahmadinejad in televised debates. Mousavi gained wide public support as a result but the regime brooked no possibility of defeat. Immediately after polls closed the government-controlled media announced Ahmadinejad as the winner with nearly 70 percent of the vote against Mousavi’s 28 percent. The regime’s blatant fraud prompted huge protests involving hundreds of thousands of people demanding democratic change. Organized in part through widespread use of cell phones and social media, the protest movement (called the Green Revolution) lasted for months, but eventually dissipated in the face of pervasive police repression. Protests were dispersed by force and at least 72 people were killed. Mousavi, his wife, herself a prominent intellectual, and Mehdi Karroubi, a fellow reformist candidate who had thrown his support to Mousavi, were placed under house arrest (where they have remained). 

Current Issues

In response to the 2009 protests, Green Revolution leaders and hundreds of other activists were imprisoned, non-governmental organizations were closed, and students who participated in the protests were expelled from universities. In addition to holding hundreds of political prisoners, the government has continued to imprison thousands of people on charges of committing religious crimes such as moharebeh (enmity against God”). Revolutionary Tribunals sentence people not only to harsh prison terms but also to severe floggings (up to 100 lashes) and, in many cases, execution, usually by public hangings. (Next to China, Iran has the second highest number of executions in the world — and the highest rate per capita.)

Presidential elections held in 2013 were considered significant for the election of Hassan Rouhani, who won 51 percent against seven candidates allowed to run by the Guardian Council (it excluded 600 other candidates). Rouhani, although he is considered close to Khamenei and served as the former chief negotiator in international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, pledged a reformist government that would adopt comparatively more liberal policies and attempt to ease strained relations with the West. Rouhani also signaled willingness to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear program, a change that appeared to be the result of the increasing economic impact on Iran of international sanctions, which now included strict bans on arms and oil sales, international bank transactions, and freezing of assets held by the IRGC, among others. President Barack Obama repeatedly stated the US’s position never to allow Iran to possess nuclear weapons, including by military means if necessary. However, President Obama had also made clear willingness to negotiate an agreement that prevented Iran from obtaining such weapons. In fact, Rouhani’s public position during and after the presidential campaign reflected initial behind-the-scenes discussions between the Obama administration and Iranian representatives aimed at such negotiations that began in 2011, as the harsher sanctions began to take hold. 

Following a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September 2013, two months after his election, Rouhani engaged in a highly symbolic telephone call with President Obama. The call initiated the formal renewal of talks with the P5+1 group (the five U.N. Security Council members and Germany) on Iran’s nuclear program. After reaching an interim agreement, a final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed between Iran and the P5+1 group in July 2015 and its terms have been generally carried out. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to significantly reduce its levels of enriched uranium, mothball two-thirds of its centrifuges capable of enriching high-grade uranium and plutonium, incapacitate its plutonium reactor, and allow inspections of its nuclear facilities, although with notification, for a period of fifteen years. In exchange, the P5+1 agreed to the lifting of the international sanctions regime, including release of frozen international assets estimated at $100 billion and the eventual lifting of the arms sales embargo. The agreement was opposed by two key US allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia, which fear that Iran will not ultimately abandon its nuclear weapons program and is just using the agreement to gain economic relief from sanctions. It also has been opposed by members of the US Congress. The IAEA, however, confirmed that Iran had carried out the terms of the deal by early January 2016, triggering the process to end international sanctions.

At the same time, the Iranian government released three dual US-Iranian citizens, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been sentenced by Revolutionary Guards tribunals to harsh prison terms for “violating national security” or taking part in alleged foreign conspiracies. In exchange, the US released seven Iranian Americans sentenced to espionage and violating the international sanctions. The releases appeared to signal further easing of tensions with Iran, however the government has subsequently arrested other dual US-Iranian citizens, including a prominent energy contractor, and temporarily seized an American navy vessel and held its sailors under arms for entering Iranian waters.

Iran’s nuclear diplomacy did not otherwise alter Iran’s foreign policy. Since his inauguration, Rouhani has reiterated Iran’s hostility towards Israel, stating that the “the Zionist regime” was “a sore sitting on the Islamic world.” Similar statements are frequently issued by high-level officials and clerics. Iran has continued to finance, train and equip radical and terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, including its missile attacks on Israel in 2014, and to back Syria’s Assad regime, which is dominated by a fellow Shi’ite sect, against a popular uprising (see Country Studies of Israel and Syria). Iran has also continued ballistic missile tests up to a range of 2,000 since the agreement was signed, prompting some US lawmakers to  call for imposing separate sanctions on potential delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction.

Internally, Rouhani took several modest initiatives to liberalize the economy and social life, at least compared to the previous administration. Soon after his inauguration, he eased some media and internet restrictions, released a dozen political prisoners, and urged the restoration of students who had been expelled from the university for political activity in 2012–13. He also expressed disapproval of arresting people for minor infractions of religious prohibitions, including the making of a video, “Happy in Teheran,” in which seven youths danced on a rooftop to the popular Pharell Williams song, “Happy” (see links in Resources). Nevertheless, a Revolutionary Tribunal court sentenced the seven youths to nine-months to one-year prison terms and 91 lashes, with sentences suspended so long as the youths did not engage in any additional “illicit relations” or violate other Islamic law.

Overall, Freedom House’s Surveys of Freedom in the World report that there is little change in respect for human rights and continues to rank Iran among the world’s “not free” countries. The Supreme Leader and the theocracy’s main institutions of control continue to exert dominant power. The Expediency Council has rejected several reform laws, while the Guardian Council rejected more than 6,000 candidates for parliamentary elections held in February 2016, including 3,000 candidates who were considered supporters of the limited reform course proposed by President Rouhani. In the end, only a minority of seats went to Rouhani supporters and a subsequent second-round re-affirmed the dominance of the religious hierarchy, similar to municipal elections. In one case, the Guardian Council declared that one independent woman candidate, Minoo Khaleghi, would be barred from parliament because pictures (that she claimed were false) showed her not wearing a head covering while traveling to Europe and China (see New York Times articles for recent events). The case established the assertion of new powers by the Guardian Council to vet not only candidates but also elected members of the Majlis, or parliament.

Hundreds of political prisoners remain in jails or under house arrest. At the public urging of the Supreme Leader in late 2015 and early 2016, the Revolutionary Guards stepped up arrests and prosecutions for threats against national security, questioning the theocratic basis of the Islamic Republic, and infractions of religious laws. Harsh sentences, including long terms of imprisonment and floggings, have been meted out by the Revolutionary Tribunals against poets, filmmakers, students, trade unionists, and others (see, e.g. reports of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran and other links in Resources). 

Despite a regime of comprehensive repression, Iran’s civic and pro-democracy movement continues to be active in both open and clandestine ways, aided often by Iranian exiles committed to bringing change to their country. For example, Democracy Web has been translated into Persian by the group Tavaana and is being used in its online courses involving hundreds of students inside Iran. While democracy advocates are unable to organize opposition freely, the 1997-2004 reformist movement and the 2009 protest movement showed that a large part of Iranian society supports liberalization and seeks an end to the current theocracy.


The Consent of the Governed: Essential Principles

Essential Principles

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are
Life, Liberty
and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are
among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed . . ."

Declaration of Independence, United States of America, 1776

The most fundamental concept of democracy is the idea that government exists to secure the rights of the people and must be based on the consent of the governed. Today, the quote above from the U.S. Declaration of Independence is considered a maxim of the ideal form of government.

The Statue of Liberty, adopted as a symbol for democracy by student protestors in China's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The essential meaning of “consent of the governed” can perhaps best be understood by examining countries where it is lacking. China is one example. In the spring of 1989, university students organized a prolonged series of protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand truth, accountability, freedom, and democracy from their government. They adopted as their symbol a likeness of the Statue of Liberty, calling it the Goddess of Liberty. Millions of people joined the students in Beijing and other cities across China to demand a voice in the government that had long been used to deny people's freedom.

Since the Communist Party had seized power in 1949, those who dared to oppose its dictates had been subject to arrest or worse. The regime's principal authority to govern was the Communist principle of "democratic centralism," meaning that the decisions of the party’s central leadership — and ultimately the party leader — could not be questioned. The Communist Party's repressive policies and ideological campaigns caused millions of deaths through famine, execution, and violent political purges.

The Chinese people consented to none of this. The communist regime had been built through revolution and terror; no free election had ever been held in teh People's Republic. And in 1989 the Chinese people demanded democratic change. On June 4, Deng Xiaoping, the top Communist leader, ordered the use of force to put down the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and throughout China. The world saw students stand before tanks to resist, but ultimately they were helpless to prevent the mass killings and arrests that ensued. Nearly 30 years later, the Communist Party remains the supreme authority. The students and workers who sought democracy were imprisoned, expelled from school or fired from work, forced into exile, pressured to recant their views, and even denied housing. Until now, repression of human rights has effectively prevented any re-emergence of the popular demand for democracy. This is a system based on the opposite of the consent of the governed. (For a more detailed treatment of the People’s Republic of China and the repression of its democracy movement see Country Studies in Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Association.)

Before Consent of the Governed 

Until the original thirteen American states asserted the principle of consent of the governed as self-evident, it had been applied only rarely in the world’s annals. For much of recorded history, people lived under different types of dictatorship, usually a form of autocracy, the rule of a single leader exercising unlimited power. Sometimes, the ruler was the best warrior, able to seize power over a group or nation (such as Genghis Khan in 13th-century Asia). Such leaders often founded hereditary monarchies, the most common form of autocracy. In most cases, the monarch was all-powerful, claiming his or her position by "divine right" (as in Europe) or by the "mandate of heaven" (as in China). The ruler was sovereign, the supreme authority of a state. The people were not citizens but subjects. They never consented to be governed, yet owed their total obedience and loyalty to the ruler. Disobedience was punished, often by pain of death. In some countries, kings or emperors agreed to limit their powers in response to the demands of landowners and noblemen who had gained substantial wealth, establishing a system of consent by the aristocracy. England's Magna Carta (Great Charter) of 1215 is among the most famous agreements limiting the powers of a king. It guaranteed that the king and his successors would not violate the acknowledged rights and privileges of the aristocracy, the clergy, and even more limited property owners in towns (see also Section 3: Constitutional Limits).

But even when its powers were limited, monarchy meant arbitrary and unrepresentative rule for most subjects, locking them into a life of servitude. The idea that the people were themselves sovereign was — and in many places remains — revolutionary.

King John of England signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

Consent of the Governed: A Positive Definition

The United States of America was the first modern state formed around the principle of consent of the governed. The term implies that the people of a country or territory have the right of self-rule and must consent, either in a direct referendum or through elected representatives, to the establishment of their own government. In most modern cases, the form of the state is a republic, or rule by voting citizens within an agreed-upon constitutional and legal framework. But some monarchies also operate with the consent of the governed, as in the United Kingdom, where over time the monarch has given up most political and administrative functions to elected officials and the government is formed through regular elections.

An original consent of the governed —  the adoption of a new constitution or the formation of a new state — is usually achieved through direct democracy such as a referendum or plebiscite. But it may also be achieved through elected representative institutions, such as an existing legislature or a special constitutional assembly. In some cases, the establishment of a new governmental system requires a "supermajority," from three-fifths to three-quarters, to convey overwhelming popular assent, but often a simple majority suffices. (For example, the U.S. Constitution required the approval of ratifying conventions in at least nine of the thirteen states for it to take effect. An amendment to the constitution must be passed by three-quarters of the states either by a majority vote of their state legislatures or in ratifying state conventions. Yet, many countries have used simple popular majorities in national referenda to establish both national and supranational structures. What remains fixed is the principle that the people are sovereign and must provide their fundamental consent to be governed.

The most common form of democracy is a parliamentary system, in which the executive branch is controlled by the political party or coalition of political parties that wins a majority of seats in parliament and is able to form a government. Unlike in the American presidential system, parliamentary systems have few constitutional checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. The system relies heavily on the oversight of the opposition party or parties in parliament. Once a form of democratic government is established, elections are the main vehicle for renewing the consent of the governed. Each election is an opportunity for the people to change their leaders and the policies of the state. When a particular government loses the people's confidence, they have the right to replace it. The legislature may pass laws to reform the system within the bounds of the constitution; if laws are insufficient, the people and their representatives can choose to modify or replace the constitution itself.

Parliamentary systems provide a more direct consent of the governed through elections, whether in "first past the post" systems like the United Kingdom (where seats in parliament are won by the person with the most votes, whether or not it is a majority) or in proportional representation or mixed systems (where most seats are determined proporionally according to the national vote by party list). Oddly, the United States of America, the world's oldest continuous democracy, does not offer direct but inderect election for its national office through an Electoral College. While the Electoral College vote usually has coincided with the national vote, in 2016, for the second time in 16 years, the national vote winner (by 2.85 million) was denied the office of president in favor of the winner of the electoral college vote, which was achieved by several narrowly won victories in key states.

Consent of the Governed: A Negative Definition

As noted above, in defining consent of the governed, it is helpful to examine cases where it is absent. Modern authoritarian regimes offer many clear examples of what it means to have a system without the people’s consent. As is reviewed in the Country Studies of Democracy Web, these regimes take various forms, including autocracy (such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan), monarchy (such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia), theocracy (such as the Islamic Republic of Iran), military rule (common to Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and ‘80s, as in Bolivia, Chile and Guatemala), and apartheid (or rule by a racial minority as occurred in South Africa). But it is typical for all forms of authoritarian government to deny freedom to the majority of people, exercise power arbitrarily, and act ruthlessly to keep themselves in power. A distinct category of dictatorship is totalitarianism, which is based on a comprehensive ideology (such as fascism or communism) and a disciplined party apparatus. These regimes are defined by their total social control over the population, typically achieved through purges of public institutions, general repression, and mass execution. Historical examples include Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Current examples are Cuba and North Korea.

Many modern authoritarian rulers have seized power by citing the need to safeguard the integrity of the state against supposed external threats or to maintain political stability against unruly elements in society. Communist dictatorships purported to achieve economic and social rights of the population by exterminating the former ruling elites. What both types of regimes generally achieve is oppression and poverty. Often such arbitrary rule has led to famine, war, and even genocide.

Although most authoritarian rulers seize power through violent revolution or a coup d'état, they claim to have the consent of the governed. But they rarely allow free and fair elections or referendums to test their claims — what are called elections are controlled and manipulated by fraud. When a relatively free election or referendum has actually been allowed by a dictatorship, the people generally vote against it (as in Chile in 1988, Poland in 1989, and Serbia in 2000). There are some cases, such as Nazi Germany, in which a modern dictatorship has been described as coming to power through fair elections. In fact, the Nazi Party won only a parliamentary minority in the elections of 1933. Hitler, once given office, seized total power through intimidation and thuggery in what amounted to a coup d'état (see Country Study of Germany).

The Right to Rebellion

Implied in the principle of consent of the governed is the right to withdraw that consent — to overthrow a regime that abuses the people through tyrannical, arbitrary, incompetent, or unrepresentative rule. This was the right that the British philosopher John Locke asserted was intrinsic to a system of natural law (see History), and that the thirteen American states invoked against King George III in 1776

King George III of England, 1771.

Two centuries later, the people of Eastern Europe rose up to assert the same right against an oppressive Communist system. But Locke's principle is not a general right of rebellion or revolution; he did not advocate anarchy. The cause of rebellion — or the withdrawal of consent — must rest on the violation of the natural rights of citizens, that is, on the establishment of tyranny. Thus, in 1860, President Abraham Lincoln asserted the opposite principle, that a minority of states could not be allowed to rebel to preserve slavery (the tyranny of a minority) and thus destroy a constitutional system established on a representative, democratic system of governance. Such a republic had to be preserved against an anti-constitutional and anti-democratic rebellion.

Today, violent rebellion has come to be seen as a last resort. In most modern cases of the overthrow of dictatorship, from anticolonial movements to anti-Communist movements, peaceful protest and civic resistance has been a more successful form of "rebellion" than the violent overthrow of a government, especially for the purpose of establishing a democracy based on consent of the governed.

Minorities Withdrawing Consent

What happens when a subjugated minority asserts the right to withdraw its consent to be governed by the will of the majority? This has occurred in a number of places where ethnic or religious minorities desire independence from dominant and usually oppressive ethnic or religious majorities. In general, the world has recognized the right of self-determination for oppressed peoples to form their own self-governing regions or independent states, as was the case recently in Kosovo and East Timor. As well, in Sweden, Italy and other countries, minorities have gained increased autonomy without demanding independence. But for some minorities seeking independence or autonomy, the world has been less supportive of the assertion of the right of self-determination and has failed to prevent the suppression of rebellions, even when the government has resorted to mass killings or genocide. This has been the case in Chechnya and Darfur in the Sudan. Despite several international treaties and documents defining nationality and minority rights, the world’s nations have shown little consistency in this area (see also Majority Rule, Minority Rights and Human Rights).


Democracy Web is a project of the Albert Shanker Institute that was developed in conjunction with the human rights organization Freedom House. Initially launched in 2009, it is an extra-curricular on-line resource for teaching democracy as a central theme in American and world history, civics, and social studies classes. Designed for use at an upper-secondary and lower-college level, it has also been found useful at lower-secondary and even middle school levels. Democracy Web was updated in 2016 to reflect the world’s current events and will be updated on a regular basis.

Why Democracy Web?

In 1987, the American Federation of Teachers issued “Education for Democracy: A Statement of Principles.” Signed by a bipartisan group of American educational and political leaders, it asked a series of questions that remain highly relevant today:

Are the ideas and institutions — and above all the worth — of democracy adequately conveyed in American schools? Do our graduates possess . . . what Thomas Jefferson hoped for, an ability to decide for themselves “what will secure or endanger” their freedom? Do they know of democracy’s short and troubled tenure in human history? Do they comprehend its vulnerabilities? Do they recognize and accept their responsibility for preserving and extending their political inheritance?

The signers of the statement were deeply worried that at a time of international challenges American students were not properly educated in the principles and practices on which a free society rests, that American and world history had been de-emphasized in the educational curriculum, and that the teaching of democracy, the system of American governance, was presented in world history and other textbooks in a relative way as one of many equally valid systems or indeed as “ethnocentric.” For a time there was an effort to improve the standards for teaching history and democracy, but it foundered. Thirty years later, at a time of new international and domestic challenges, the same questions quoted above are as valid as then.

To address this problem, Democracy Web set out to provide an extracurricular resource for teachers and students at the upper-secondary and lower-level college levels to study the principles and practices of democracy as they evolved over history and as they developed in a variety of countries. To achieve that goal, Democracy Web has created a resource for “comparative studies in freedom” in order that students may learn fundamental lessons of democracy — and lessons of world history — from the vantage points of where democracy exists, where it exists in part, and where it does not exist at all.

Democracy Web chose the basic methodology of Freedom House’s Annual Survey of Freedom in the World, which measures 12 different aspects of political freedoms and civil liberties of 193 countries and territories and categorizes those countries and territories into free, partly free, and not free status. By comparing how democratic principles are practiced and not practiced in these three types of countries, students may gain greater appreciation for the political system that their forbearers bequested to future generations, the common values on which that system was founded, and the struggle that has existed, both in America and in the world, to achieve, preserve and extend democracy and its exercise of political and human rights.

As the Statement of Principles concluded:

[W]e cannot take [democracy’s] survival or its spread —or its perfection in practice—for granted . . . we are convinced that democracy’s survival depends upon our transmitting to each new generation the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us.

This statement, of course, applies not just in the United States but anywhere democracy has taken root.

Why Democracy?

The first premise of the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles — and of Democracy Web — is:

[D]emocracy is the worthiest form of human governance ever conceived.

This assertion is purposely comparative. Democracy is the “worthiest form of human governance” compared to all its non-democratic or anti-democratic systems alternatives. Democracy by its nature is not a perfect form of governance but rather one that, as the US Constitution conceptualized, seeks always to become “more perfect.” Indeed, it is a central contradiction of history that the core values of liberty and equality as set forth in modern democracy’s founding document, the US Declaration of Independence, did not apply to one-sixth of the inhabitants of the United States who were brought in chains from Africa to be slaves. Nor did political equality or many civil liberties exist for women and those without property. Yet, American democracy has achieved over time a greater and greater adherence to these common democratic values of liberty and equality and to the greater and greater adherence of human and civil rights generally. It is this story that is central to the teaching or discussion of American democracy, and by extension any teaching or discussion of democracy in the world.

The second premise of the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles — and of Democracy Web — is:

[W]e believe that the great central drama of modern history has been and continues to be the struggle to establish, preserve, and extend democracy—at home and abroad.

Describing the imperfections, contradictions, and evolution of democracy is essential. So, too, is the description of non-democratic and anti-democratic systems and their essential characteristics to limit or deny altogether freedom and human rights to both citizens and non-citizens. Democracy Web sets out to compare and contrast democratic and non-democratic systems and also to describe the history and current practices of different types of authoritarian and totalitarian political systems.

It is through comparison of democracy (and its various types) with different forms of political oppression that students may understand how so many people in so many different countries came to struggle and fight against dictatorship to seek democracy.  It is also only through the study of anti-democratic systems and countries that students may understand the evolution over time of liberal democratic standards and the greater expansion of democratic freedoms through the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries.

Where Democracy Stands

Around the time the Statement of Principles was written, democracy was experiencing a surge: what political scientist Samuel Huntington called a “third wave” of democracy. From Spain to Chile and from the Philippines to South Africa, people rose up in citizens movements to overthrew dictatorship and demand and achieve free elections and human rights. In the world’s most spectacular expansion of democracy of the time (involving 27 countries all told), people rose up throughout Eastern Europe to overthrow Soviet communism, bringing an end to both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact and its significant challenge to the Transatlantic Alliance of democratic countries.

All told, the number of electoral democracies increased from [54] in 1973 to 125 in 2006 and the number of countries counted as free in the Freedom House annual Survey of Freedom in the World rose to [84].

Since then, however, democracy in the world has experienced what some political scientists are calling a “recession.” While the number of electoral democracies has not declined significantly, the political rights and civil liberties necessary for democracy have declined precipitously.  Indeed, Freedom House has reported the 11th straight year of declines in its rankings of political rights and civil liberties in its 2016 survey. In “not free” and “partly free” countries, political repression has worsened. Indeed, even in established democracies, including in the United States, Freedom House reports declines in both political rights and civil liberties.

The difficulties democracy is experiencing in the world, however, do not negate the basic premise that democracy remains, as the Education for Democracy Statement of Principles asserted, “the worthiest form of governance ever conceived.” Its expansion over time from its modern birthplace in America and the more current struggles around the world for human rights and free elections is testament to the aspirations of people for democracy. These challenges, however, have given a new urgency to Democracy Web’s purpose.

The Specific Approach

Democracy Web chose for its framework the original methodology of Freedom House’s annual Survey of Freedom in the World, which measures 12 categories of freedom as a framework for analyzing the state of political rights and civil liberties in each country.  These categories form the study guide’s 12 units, or sections. They are: consent of the governed, free elections, constitutional limits, majority rule/minority rights, accountability and transparency, multiparty systems, economic freedom, rule of law, human rights and freedom from state tyranny, and freedoms of expression, association, and religion. Together, these categories offer a comprehensive architecture for describing democracy’s essential principles and history — each unit begins with these two sections.

Freedom House uses its analysis to designate the 193 countries and territories it examines as “free,” “partially free” and “not free.” It is this designation that forms the basis of its Map of Freedom in the World. For its comparative studies of freedom, Democracy Web has chose one free, one partly free, and one not free country for each of the 12 units to examine how each of the democratic principles is practiced or not practiced in the selected countries — 36 country studies overall. (Two countries, the Netherlands and China, are used for two unit categories, so there are a total of 34 countries selected. There have been two changes in a country’s designation since Democracy Web first chose its countries of study, but they remain generally valid for the unit’s comparative study.) Within each country study, Democracy Web provides a summary, a brief history, and an examination of the essential principle within the context of that country.

Through this comparative studies format, students are challenged to think critically about the foundations of democracy, the arc of freedom in history, and the reasons for the ebb and flow of democracy in different eras, different regions, and within different countries (see also How to Use Democracy Web). By comparing countries, one can examine many topics:  the different elements that make up democracy; the different ways democratic principles are practiced or not practiced; how democracy is preserved and expanded; the ways in which democracy has been threatened; how democratic movements try to achieve freedom from authoritarian rule; and also how all of these issues may relate to conditions in the US.  Democracy Web can help teachers who want to give their students a deep understanding of the answers to such issues by exposing them to the study of numerous forms of government around the world. And because governance influences virtually every aspect of life, comparative political study is not only about governments, it is also about how the individuals in a given country interact with their governments and can act to make a difference.


June 23, 2016