Similarities and differences

The fundamental difference between these two models is that in representative democracy there is a divide between those governing (representatives) and those governed (the people) and in direct democracy that distinction is blurred. The principle is self-government.

Direct democracy , also called plebiscitary democracy, has some very important advantages.. For instance, direct democracy is the most pure form of democracy, it increases the control citizens have over political decisions, strengthens political culture and involvement in political activities and it provides legitimacy to the decisions made, because it is the citizens who have taken them (Heywood, 2013, p.92). But it also has limitations . Mass meetings and discussions with

the participation of all citizens are not possible beyond small communities. Ordinary citizens may lack sufficient background information and expertise to decide on some technical issues. Moreover, it is commonly argued that direct democracy is more prone to populism and demagogy; leaders with good oratory skills can more easily manipulate the masses in that type of democracy

Representative democracy, on the other hand, gives less room for participation but counters some of the drawbacks of direct democracy. Representative democracy can be used in larger communities because the discussions and decisions are not made by the whole population but by a subset. The members of the parliament and the executive are the representatives in charge of ruling. In this system decisions are usually taken by people with good education,

expert knowledge and experience. Despite these advantages there are still some problems with representative democracy. Popular participation is infrequent and brief. The act of participation is usually confined to voting in elections

every few years in order to select a representative.

The act of representation itself can be controversial: how can one person represent the interests (sometimes incompatible) of many people? How does the representative communicate with the people represented? Do representatives favour the interests of the people they represent or are they more likely to favour their own?

Representative democracy can be supplemented by some of the instruments of direct democracy such as referendums and popular initiatives.

Referendums can be advisory or binding and are generally used in decisions concerning constitutions or other fundamental laws governing things like electoral systems.

Popular initiatives

are petitions that, when signed by a minimum number of citizens, oblige the government to discuss an issue or to

submit it to referendum. The best example of direct democracy is Switzerland where the use of these instruments is extremely frequent at the federal (state), cantonal (regional) and local levels. Moreover the development of electronic direct democracy thanks to innovation in communication technology is creating new opportunities for the direct participation of citizens in government. The use of the instruments of direct democracy nevertheless entails some dangers. For instance, the choices offered to citizens in referendums are few and are fixed beforehand.

The citizens may not be interested or not agree with the options presented. Whoever has the power to compose the question has the capacity to shape its outcome. For instance, there is a great controversy about the wording of the question and the options for the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum. In many authoritarian regimes, referendums and acts of mass acclamations (voice votes) are used to legitimise policies that could be considered non- democratic elsewhere. Some of the questions proposed in a referendum could violate individual or minority rights. Others could have wider implications that are difficult for the public to assess. Moreover, where political views are polarised or popular leaders claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’, referendums can be utilised to bypass some of the representative institutional checks and balances

It is a mistake to view direct democracy and representative democracy as completely different. systems. All representative systems contain features of direct democracy.

  • Similarities

    • . Referendums involve campaigns as do elections. The Brexit Referendum had the feel of a General Election. TV debates- analysis by journalists and opinion polls. High profile politicians took sides and their personalities were seen to have an effect on voters intentions e.g Boris Johnson

    • In legislatures, representatives will seek the views of their constituents through direct contact with them in constituency surgeries or by responding to correspondence. MPs may be influenced by the volume of letters they receive on a particular issue. In this way, they are acting according to the delegate model of representation. Police and Crime Commissioners are seen as a voice for the people rather than party representatives.

    • Initiatives, petitions, public consultations etc happen all the time within representative democracies in order for the government to represent the people . Public consultations are a routine part of local government- particularly planning. The Localism Act 2011 gave people the power to trigger a local referendum if they can organise a petition of 5% of the people in a local area. The Petitions Committee in the House of Commons will allocate time for a debate in they receive an E-petition of 100,000 signatures.

    • Pressure groups provide for the kind of participation which is characteristic of direct democracy ie direct action and mass protests. This is common in all systems of representative democracy.

    • Also, Pressure Groups are consulted by governments on policy formulation as insider groups or as part of a consultation process. Think Tanks participate in policy formulation in a way which might seem like direct democracy.


    • People make decisions (e.g. through a referendum) instead of through elected or appointed bodies.

    • In Representative Democracy Governments are held accountable, but how can the people be accountable after a referendum. Had the government taken the UK out of the EU we might hold them to account if it turns out to be a bad idea.

    • Direct democracy is majoritarian - working on the will of the majority - There is a risk of tyranny of the majority e.g. California 2008 initiative to ban civil partnerships - discriminatory. Representative democracy mediates between different groups representing them all and acting in a counter-majoritarian force.

    • In the UK constitution Parliament is legally sovereign whereas in a direct democracy there is an idea of popular sovereignty -which has no legal reality.

    • More likely to result in rational decision - direct often works with emotions e.g. AV referendum negative vote after Lib Dems went back on their promise on tuition fees. Many Brexit votes were cast because of fears of immigration

    • Representative Democracy can handle complex and technical political decisions - this isn't practical for direct democracy e.g. AV low turnout and negative vote partly due to complexity; Scottish Referendum lead lasted months because people needed to be educated on the political, economic, and social implications. Referendums tend to offer limited yes or no choices which are not suited to complex decisions.