Legitimacy is an idea that is very closely associated with democracy. In general, it means this:

The idea that a government or any other political institution has a democratic right to hold political power Legitimacy is a contestable term in that it is not always clear whether an institution is legitimate. The following list of circumstances illustrates both the meaning of legitimacy and the problems in determining whether legitimacy is justified. Each case relates to the UK.

  • · The House of Commons is legitimate because it is elected. However, many claim that the electoral system is unfair and distorts political representation, so legitimacy can be challenged.

  • · The House of Lords is arguably not legitimate because its members are not elected. However, it does have traditional authority and its political influence remains widely recognised.

  • · UK government is legitimate because it is elected with a clear mandate to govern. However, every government in the UK has been elected with a minority of the popular vote, so we can challenge its legitimacy.

  • · The power of the prime minister is legitimate because it is widely acknowledged that he (or she) is the supreme policy maker in the political system. However, there is no legal basis for prime ministerial power, so it could be said to lack legitimacy.

If we look at other regimes we can see that legitimacy can be challenged even more strongly. For example:

  • · Regimes that seize power by force are not considered to be legitimate. This applies to the government of Cuba, where the communist party came to power after a civil war.

  • · States which have one-party systems, such as China, lack democratic legitimacy even though they might receive widespread popular support.

  • · States where democracy is considered to be a facade or 'sham' lack legitimacy. Iran is an example.

  • · Hereditary monarchies such as Saudi Arabia or Bahrain lack democratic legitimacy.