I think the title is very clear, but I'll complete the question below:

  1. What are the minimum requirements needed for a system to be called democratic?

  2. Is holding elections every n years enough, or there are deeper requirements?

In other words, what criteria must a system of government meet before it can be called democratic?

  • Minimum requirements? Any nation able to make the claim that their system reflects the will of the people (the demos). Characteristics we assume inherent to a democracy, such a formal voting (information propagation) and revocation of mandate (iterative refinement) are more than the minimum requirements of a democracy in its broadest fundamental sense. – LateralFractal Oct 28 '14 at 22:08

"Democratic" is a very imprecise label. For example, USSR held elections every N years, and called itself a democracy, despite "the people" having virtually no power.

Wikipedia defines Democracy as:

a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy allows eligible citizens to participate equally—either directly or through elected representatives—in the proposal, development, and creation of laws.

Note two things here:

  1. In reality, "Democracy" as defined here is an ideal that Simply Does Not Exist. Nobody ever has "equal say", for a variety of reasons. Like anything else, in reality there's a continuum, which, since we are dealing with humans, is messy and hard to pin down.

  2. The official definition is about an idea, not an implementation. Thus, elections, while one way of implementing democracy-aimed ideas, are not a requirement at all (for example, you could simply make every citizen vote on every political decision directly). Elections are about representative Democracy.

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    Also note the word "eligible" and that who is eligible has varied greatly throughout history. – Readin Jun 4 '16 at 5:42

A common definition is Karl Poppers, that democracy is system that makes it possible to get rid of a government without spilling blood.

This is a pragmatic definition, and it makes United states a democracy no matter what objections you have of the process, but not South Africa, even though the process is democratic in principle, as ANC still rules.

I think this is one of the few definitions that people of different ideologies can agree on, just because it's purely pragmatic and casts no judgement on how the system looks, only how well it works.

  • I think it is a good definition, but must also at least have the very basic characteristics of a Democracy, direct or representative rule with citizens voting on representatives. A democracy in the very least must have elections and be possible to change without violent revolution. – user117 Dec 5 '12 at 14:42
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    @maple_shaft: Well, Poppers definition says that you don't have to have elections, you only have to be possible to change without violence. So a system with direct democracy, that only have votes but no elections would still be considered democratic with this definition. – Lennart Regebro Dec 5 '12 at 19:17

Democracies are governments that allow all people to participate equally, either directly or indirectly. This spectrum stretches from pure democracy, with majority rule, to representative democracies where a subset of the populace speaks for the whole.

An important distinction: in a democracy, it is the fundamental premise that the Majority Rules. Convince a large enough portion of the populace to support an idea, and it can be implemented.

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    Some democracies (usually NGOs) don't have a majority rule, but a consensus rule. Decisions aren't made counting which option has more votes, but discussing until that there's a general agreement about the best option. – NaBUru38 Jun 2 '16 at 23:49
  • By these criteria, the US is not a democracy. A voter in California is not equal to one in Wyoming, in Senate and Electoral College representation. In addition, there have been Presidents elected while not getting the majority of the votes, 2016 in particular. – David Thornley Sep 14 '18 at 16:27
  • @DavidThornley You're right, the United States were not founded as a Democracy, but a Republic. Constructed from several Sovereign States, the Federal government was built in such a fashion so that each of those States would be represented. In the legislature, it was formed as two houses: one staffed proportionally to the population, to account for the will of the people; the other staffed equally to represent the interests in the States. the 17th Amendment Broke that. The President of a union government should not be elected by popular vote. – Drunk Cynic Sep 14 '18 at 16:33
  • @DrunkCynic "Republic" and "Democracy" are not particularly related concepts. – David Thornley Sep 14 '18 at 19:40
  • @DavidThornley And I think citizens residing in DC and Puerto Rico don't vote for president. – Keith McClary Sep 16 '18 at 23:56

Democracy exists to whatever extent the group decision-making of a set of people (e.g. a society) consistently reflects the will of that set of people collectively. Elections are one means of helping to achieve or assure that, but it is possible (though rare and difficult) to have democracy without elections. As an observer one applies the label "democracy" when the extent to which this is true exceeds some arbitrary threshold level. That is the one and only requirement to calling a political system democratic.

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