Saturday, 20 August 2011


In the contemporary terrorism-ridden political climate, where the threat of attacks upon our fundamental freedoms are as devastating as they are ubiquitous, the notion of democracy is propounded as both the catalyst of such attacks and the panacea to them. Indeed, the power of the democratic ideal has pervaded legal and political discourse throughout the last century, evoking “some of histories most profound and moving expressions of human will and intellect ”. Yet despite its ubiquity and centrality, little is known about democracy with sufficient empirical or theoretical certainty , and a comprehensive definition has eluded both lawyers and political scientists. As such, the democratic ideal has been deemed an “essentially contested concept ”: one which is “sufficiently complex and open-textured to sustain multiple reasonable interpretations ”.

Procedural democracy is a democracy in which the people or citizens of the state have less influence than in traditional liberal democracies. This type of democracy is characterized by voters choosing to elect representatives in free elections. Substantive democracy is a form of democracy in which the outcome of elections is representative of the people. In other words, substantive democracy is a form of democracy that functions in the interest of the governed. Although a country may allow all citizens of age to vote, this characteristic does not necessarily qualify it as a substantive democracy.

When you say substantive democracy, it actually refers to the written or statutory democracy which governs the relationship between people, or between people and the state. Procedural democracy, on the other hand, is the set of rules followed when a court is hearing a case ‘“ so it basically dictates what will happen during a civil or criminal proceeding. Next, here’s a deeper look at the differences between the terms. When there is an ongoing trial, substantive democracy is the branch of the legal industry which will define the crimes and punishments to which the accused will be subjected. It’s also the branch of democracy which defines the rights and responsibilities of a civilian.
Compare this with procedural democracy, which provides a government with the machinery to enforce the rights and duties as defined in substantive democracy. In layman’s terms, substantive democracy defines how the facts in a case will be handled, as well as how a particular case is to be charged. As the name implies, it’s the ‘substance’ of the case that is being handled. Meanwhile, procedural democracy is the step-by-step process that the case will go through. For example, procedural democracy will dictate whether a case will go into trial or not. Other distinct differences between the two is that procedural democracy cannot function independently, while substantive democracys can. Procedural democracy does not necessarily decide the fate of a case, while substantive democracy does. Substantive democracy is also the branch of democracy which decides who wins the case, and the compensation to be received. Procedural democracys can be applied to non-legal contexts, but substantive democracy cannot. Finally, procedural democracy is more about how the democracy will be executed, while substantive democracy provides the legal solution to a case.

To combat such ambiguity, the orthodox approach to defining democracy lies in observing “the political practice and common usage, which leads to a definition in terms of institutions and processes ”. This empirical approach to democracy perceives it as “the freedom of self-determination in making collective and binding decisions…citizens entitled to participate as political equals in making the laws and rules under which they will live as citizens ”. This definition, propounded by prominent democratic theorist Robert Dahl, reveals the fundamentally procedural nature of traditional approaches to democracy, whereby its existence in any state is characterised by some institutional political arrangement. Simply put, democracy in this sense is indeed ‘merely a way of choosing government’. Broadly speaking, this procedural interpretation is predominantly composed of two distinct ‘core’ processes: political participation and political ‘contestation’.

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