Why are elections important in a democracy

Bundestag election 2017

Frank Decker

Prof. Dr. Frank Decker, born in Montabaur in 1964, has held a chair for political science at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn since 2001. Since 2011 he has also been Scientific Director of the Bonn Academy for Research and Teaching of Practical Politics (BAPP).
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In a democracy "[all] state power emanates from the people. It is exercised by the people in elections and votes [...]", as stated in Article 20 (2) of the Basic Law (GG). Elections and votes do not have the same rank. Elections are essential in a democracy, while direct democratic procedures known as voting are an "optional" element of the constitution. In the German federal states and municipalities, these procedures, with which the citizens themselves can make binding decisions on certain questions, are provided everywhere today. At the federal level, they are limited to the case of a reorganization of the states, which is of little practical importance (Art. 29 GG).


Source text

Art. 20 para. 2 GG

All governmental power comes from the people. It is exercised by the people in elections and votes and through special legislative, executive and judicial organs.
Political science, according to constitutional lawyer Uwe Volkmann, assigns four essential functions to elections:
  • Legitimation function: Elections are indispensable for a democracy and bring back political rule to the will of those who are subject to rule. They secure the control of those subject to rule over the rulers and, through their regular return, guarantee the time limit of political rule, which is essential for democracy.
  • Creation function: The political governing bodies emerge from elections, so in a parliamentary democracy a functioning representative body. For its part, it is in a position to set up a functioning government and to make the decisions that are essential for the community.
  • Representation function: Elections should ensure that the diverse interests, views and values ​​of the population are reflected in the representative body they have elected.
  • Integration function: The population is also integrated into the political system through elections; to this end, the electoral act as such creates a political common ground among the citizens.
Even undemocratic systems are reluctant to forego elections. Because they want and can at least give the impression that their power is based on the approval of the population. However, democratic elections presuppose that preferences can develop freely within society, that parties bundle them into different programmatic and personal offers and that these offers compete fairly with one another in the electoral dispute. The competition is tied to the majority principle as a democratic rule of the game. Its functionality is proven by the fact that changes of government are possible.

Participation in federal elections by age group (& copy of the Federal Returning Officer)
In the established democracies, too, there are doubts as to whether and how well the elections will continue to fulfill the functions and principles mentioned. Declining voter turnout, declining membership of the parties and the growing popularity of right and left protest parties are evidence of the loss of reputation of the representative institutions. Authors like the social scientist Colin Crouch attribute the crisis of democracy to an erosion of its central principles. Elections, party competition and the separation of powers remained intact externally. But they would have less and less influence on the decisions, which the governments and powerful lobbyists negotiated largely autonomously among themselves.

A milder version of the criticism complains about the lack of real decision alternatives. The parties would hardly differ in their basic goals and offers to solve problems. At the same time they formed a power cartel wherever their own interests were at stake, for example in party funding. Populism is a reaction to these tendencies.

Empirical studies also indicate a growing social inequality in voter turnout. For example, the proportion of non-voters in the 2013 federal election in the lowest income group was more than five times as high as in the top (39 compared to 7 percent). The younger age groups also only participate below average. From a democratic point of view, this is precarious because it means that the interests of these groups are also given less consideration in the political process: Those who do not vote run the risk of their interests not being represented. For this reason, some authors, such as the political scientist Armin Schäfer, advocate the introduction of compulsory voting.