The Role of Citizens in Democracy

Having just voted for the presidential elections in July 2014, voters in Jakarta’s Senin district show their inked fingers. Photo by Telibert Laoc

Sovereignty resides in and flows from the people of a country. They have a collective right to choose their governmental, political and electoral systems as an aspect of self-determination. The authority of government likewise derives from the will of the people in their choice of these systems, and the people have a right to take part in their government, including through genuine elections to determine who will legitimately occupy governmental offices.  

These precepts are embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in modern constitutions the world over. They capture the foundation for the famous formulation that democratic government is “of the people, by the people and for the people.” In essence, they mean just that: governments belong to the people; governmental processes belong to the people; and elections belong to the people.

It is that simple, and it is that complicated. There is no democracy without the engagement of citizens. Engagement is thus both a right and a responsibility of citizens in establishing, developing and sustaining democracy.

Citizen engagement is not an abstraction; it takes tangible forms and serves particular purposes to improve people's’ lives. Citizen engagement pursues economic, social, cultural and political development, including the provision of opportunity, resources, services, and security. As NDI’s Chairman Madeleine Albright often says: “Democracy must deliver.”

For democracy to deliver,  citizens must become informed about issues that can improve their lives. They must be free to join together to express their views and preferences and work to see that government responds to citizen views, thus holding those in government accountable. To be informed, citizens need accurate and timely information, particularly government-held information. They need to learn from those who compete in politics how politicians intend to employ that information for the good of the population. Access to information, and what we often call “open government data,” is essential to an informed citizenry. That is why “transparency” is a necessity for democracy. Citizens, including political competitors, must also be free to impart their views about governmental processes and public affairs; otherwise citizens cannot be truly informed, nor can they freely make choices.

Barriers to citizen participation are multiple in every country. They are both subtle and obvious, small and formidable, and based on numerous factors. For full citizenship to be achieved, we must remove these barriers, whether they are based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age or another status. If not, universal and equal suffrage is essentially denied, and governmental credibility is undermined to the degree that these barriers exist.