13 signposts of a democracy

The general election is just one month away. If you’re like me, you’re tired of the roadside signs, radio and TV ads, “attack ad” complaints, and “gotcha” moments. In the midst of the campaign hurricane, let’s take a moment to appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a democratic country and how valuable our right to vote is.

Though no two democracies are exactly alike, there are 13 basic principles common to all democracies, as outlined by Democracy for All:

1. Citizen Participation. Participation in government is both a right and a duty, whether it is paying taxes, being informed, voting in elections, attending civic meetings, or running for election.

Note: According to the United States Election Project, voter turnout was 48.5% in Hawaii and 61.6% in the United States of eligible voters in the 2008 general election (the last presidential election). What does this say about how we value citizenship and our right to vote?

2. Equality. All people are valued equally, have equal opportunities, and may not be discriminated against because of their race, religion, ethnic group, gender or sexual orientation. Individuals and groups still maintain their right to have different cultures, personalities, languages and beliefs.

3. Political Tolerance. While the majority of the people rule, the rights of the minority are protected. People who are not in power are allowed to organize and speak out; and individual citizens must learn to be tolerant of each other.

4. Accountability. Elected and appointed officials must be accountable to the people. Officials must make decisions and perform their duties according to the will of the people and their own principles.

5. Transparency. A transparent government holds public meetings and allows citizens to attend. The press and the people are able to get information about what decisions are being made, by whom and why.

6. Regular, Free and Fair Elections. Elected officials are chosen and peacefully removed from office in a free and fair manner. Elections are held regularly. Participation in elections is not based on a citizen’s wealth, and there are few obstacles to voting.

7. Economic Freedom. Government allows private ownership of property and businesses, and the people are allowed to choose their own work and labor unions. Generally, free markets exist and the state does not totally control the economy.

8. Control of the Abuse of Power. Laws prevent any elected official or group of people from misusing or abusing their power. Frequently the government is structured to limit the powers of the branches of government: to have independent courts and agencies with power to act against any illegal action by an elected official or branch of government; to allow for citizen participation and elections; and to check for police abuse of power.

9. Bill of Rights. A bill of rights, which is a list of rights and freedoms guaranteed to all people in the country, protects people against abuse of power. It limits the power of government and may also impose duties on individuals and organizations.

10. Accepting the Results of Elections. In democratic elections, the losers in an election accept the election results peacefully.

11. Human Rights. All democracies strive to respect and protect the human rights of citizens, reflecting a respect for human life and human dignity. Examples of human rights include freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, the right to equality and the right to education.

12. Multi-Party System. A multi-party system allows for opposition to the party, provides the government with different viewpoints on issues, and offers voters a choice of candidates, parties, and policies.

13. The Rule of Law. No one is above the law, not even a king or an elected President. Everyone must obey the law and be held accountable if they violate it. Laws are equally, fairly and consistently enforced.

Are all of these principles of democracy at work in Hawaii? In the United States? Do we have an obligation to support other countries that are struggling with democratic principles?

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