Many nations call themselves democratic (e.g. the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, aka North Korea), but most scholars would refute the idea that they are democratic.

In other cases, nations hold elections to appear democratic, but the process itself is so corrupt, that again, few would call the country democratic.

Finally, some countries are seen as democratic, but may be missing elements that many would expect in a democracy. For example, some small countries may have valid elections, but because of global dependency cannot enact policies that support their own citizens.

I know of one trait that some denote as clear democracy: that an existing regime must peacefully relinquish power to their political opponents after an election. Interestingly, this means South Africa is currently not a democracy.

What other traits confirm a nation as being a democracy?

  • 1
    Democracy Index eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020 and en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Democracy_Index should answer this question fully.
    – James K
    Feb 9, 2022 at 21:08
  • Not fully, because the DI offers an average of subjective opinion on pretty subjective questions like "are elections fair?" The question is asking for positive tests. Things that could be used objectively to separate countries into "democratic / not-democratic." Feb 10, 2022 at 15:18
  • 1
    Then the answer is simple. "No such tests exist".
    – James K
    Feb 10, 2022 at 19:01
  • It's when the system of government, in both its design and function, provides a nominal process, and sometimes even the corresponding outcome, realizing rule by the population and in the interests of the population, with possible provision for protection of minorities within the population, and where the definition of population is further subject to exclusions on a case by case basis. Construction of a test for this condition is left as an exercise for the reader :-)
    – Pete W
    Feb 11, 2022 at 19:11

3 Answers 3


Some of the typical standards used are "free and fair multi-party elections" and the existence of the "rule of law". Wikipedia reviews a variety of definitions of the entry on "democracy" stating (citations omitted), that:

Although democracy is generally understood to be defined by voting, no consensus exists on a precise definition of democracy. Karl Popper says that the "classical" view of democracy is simply, "in brief, the theory that democracy is the rule of the people, and that the people have a right to rule." . . .

Democratic principles are reflected in all eligible citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. For example, in a representative democracy, every vote has equal weight, no unreasonable restrictions can apply to anyone seeking to become a representative, and the freedom of its eligible citizens is secured by legitimised rights and liberties which are typically protected by a constitution.

One theory holds that democracy requires three fundamental principles: upward control (sovereignty residing at the lowest levels of authority), political equality, and social norms by which individuals and institutions only consider acceptable acts that reflect the first two principles of upward control and political equality. Legal equality, political freedom and rule of law are often identified as foundational characteristics for a well-functioning democracy.

The term "democracy" is sometimes used as shorthand for liberal democracy, which is a variant of representative democracy that may include elements such as political pluralism; equality before the law; the right to petition elected officials for redress of grievances; due process; civil liberties; human rights; and elements of civil society outside the government. Roger Scruton argued that democracy alone cannot provide personal and political freedom unless the institutions of civil society are also present.

In some countries, notably in the United Kingdom which originated the Westminster system, the dominant principle is that of parliamentary sovereignty, while maintaining judicial independence. In India, parliamentary sovereignty is subject to the Constitution of India which includes judicial review. . . .

There are many decision-making methods used in democracies, but majority rule is the dominant form. Without compensation, like legal protections of individual or group rights, political minorities can be oppressed by the "tyranny of the majority". Majority rule is a competitive approach, opposed to consensus democracy, creating the need that elections, and generally deliberation, are substantively and procedurally "fair," i.e. just and equitable. In some countries, freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and internet democracy are considered important to ensure that voters are well informed, enabling them to vote according to their own interests.

It has also been suggested that a basic feature of democracy is the capacity of all voters to participate freely and fully in the life of their society. With its emphasis on notions of social contract and the collective will of all the voters, democracy can also be characterised as a form of political collectivism because it is defined as a form of government in which all eligible citizens have an equal say in lawmaking.

Republics, though often associated with democracy because of the shared principle of rule by consent of the governed, are not necessarily democracies, as republicanism does not specify how the people are to rule. Classically the term "republic" encompassed both democracies and aristocracies. In a modern sense the republican form of government is a form of government without monarch. Because of this democracies can be republics or constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom.

Western and liberal democratic system political observers do not generally consider one party states to be fully democratic, even though they are Republics, because they do not formally recognize a hereditary monarch, even if they are not democracies. This is because citizens are not given a meaningful opportunity to exercise choices about the nature of the government, and who represents them in it, in a "free" manner.

The same link also discusses how this is operationalized:

Ranking of the degree of democracy are published by several organisations according to their own various definitions of the term and relying on different types of data:[162]

The V-Dem Institute's Varieties of Democracy Report is published each year since 2014 by the Swedish research institute V-Dem. It includes separate indices measuring five different types of democracy: electoral democracy, liberal democracy, participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, and egalitarian democracy.

The Democracy Index, published by the UK-based Economist Intelligence Unit, is an assessment of countries' democracy. Countries are rated to be either Full Democracies, Flawed Democracies, Hybrid Regimes, or Authoritarian regimes. Full democracies, flawed democracies, and hybrid regimes are considered to be democracies, and the authoritarian states are considered to be dictatorial or oligarchic. The index is based on 60 indicators grouped in five different categories.

The U.S.-based Polity data series is a widely used data series in political science research. It contains coded annual information on regime authority characteristics and transitions for all independent states with greater than 500,000 total population and covers the years 1800–2006. Polity's conclusions about a state's level of democracy are based on an evaluation of that state's elections for competitiveness, openness and level of participation. The Polity work is sponsored by the Political Instability Task Force (PITF) which is funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. However, the views expressed in the reports are the authors' alone and do not represent the views of the US Government.

MaxRange, a dataset defining level of democracy and institutional structure(regime-type) on a 100-graded scale where every value represents a unique regime type. Values are sorted from 1–100 based on level of democracy and political accountability. MaxRange defines the value corresponding to all states and every month from 1789 to 2015 and updating. MaxRange is created and developed by Max Range, and is now associated with the university of Halmstad, Sweden.

Other indices measuring freedom and human rights include degree of democracy as an element. Some of these include the Freedom in the World ranking, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, the Index of Freedom in the World, and the CIRI Human Rights Data Project.


No such positive tests exist.

You may look at the democracy index but that offers an average of subjective opinion on pretty subjective questions like "are elections fair?"

It is not possible to measure democracy objectively in the way that a physicist will measure the mass of a particle.

  • Given that I gave at least one example (that an existing regime must peacefully relinquish power to their political opponents after an election), this cannot be true. Feb 10, 2022 at 19:07
  • Given that you also identified regimes that are plausibly democratic that don't pass this "test".
    – James K
    Feb 10, 2022 at 19:40
  • Many people still think Pluto is a planet as well, but by the current test for planet, it is not. That's because someone deployed a positive test. With another test, Pluto might be a planet. That does not mean the test is not positive. Feb 10, 2022 at 19:45

While the index response is a fair answer, the question asked for "positive" measures, implying that there cannot be a middle ground or sub-categories.

This list is a mishmash of concepts I have heard from past conversations with political scientists and lectures that may qualify.

  • Two or more political parties can take power without violent conflict
  • Peaceful transfer of power based on an established electoral process
  • A judicial wing of government that treats all people equally (rule of law)
  • Legislated or constitutional protections for voters
  • Constitutional freedoms for individuals to participate in political leadership
  • Constitutional freedoms to express support or criticism of a political party
  • Constitutional protection for individual rights
  • Constitutional supports to avoid oppression of minority groups. (John Rawls)
  • A bureaucracy capable of implementing policy with oversight from elected officials
  • Tolerance for non-violent civil disobedience (Habermas)

In addition, Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" thesis has suggested that after the fall of the Berlin wall, democracy has been confirmed the only viable system of government. If this were true, the positive test would be that any growing nation would count as democratic. This would mean that China is democratic, which defeats the thesis somewhat.

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