What is "Liberal Democracy"?


Liberal democracy, known also as ‘representative democracy’, has been the dominant system of democracy in many Western countries for the past one to two hundred years.

Since the 1990s following the collapse of communism, it has been adopted in many non-Western countries as well.

Liberal democracy’s main point of difference from other forms of democracy is a distinctive set of institutions in which the political voice of individual citizens is aggregated and expressed through representative institutions and processes.

These institutions, which include political parties, elected assemblies and mass elections, form and make decisions on behalf of citizens based on majority rule.

Elected assemblies are seen as the core of liberal democracy because they are elected to voice and enact the will of the people, and protect the liberties and rights of individual citizens and minority groups from excesses of state power. Through deliberation, debate and majority agreement on legislation and other policy-making, elected assembles enact laws and regulation that are meant to steer liberal democracies in purposive ways.

The ‘executive’ arm of liberal democracy, which includes bureaucrats, experts and other non-elected advisors appointed to government, exists primarily to make sure laws made by elected assemblies are made effective and accountable.

The judiciary arm provides rulings and judgements that interpret laws, resolve procedural disputes within the system and protect rights.

Each arm has distinct roles and responsibilities, creating a series of checks and balances on each other through what is known as the ‘separation of powers’.

Liberal democracy has a number of variations. These include different ways it selects leaders (for example ‘presidential democracy’ in which the chief executive is elected by the people, and ‘parliamentary democracy’ in which leaders are selected by elected representatives).

It also includes different ways in which elected representatives are organised (for example, ‘federalism’ in which democratic authority and elected representation is devolved more toward local assemblies or authorities).


Thumbnail image: Cristóbal Alvarado Minic/Flickr