Democracy vs. Authoritarianism

The word democracy comes from the Greek words ‘demos,’ which refers to the people, and ‘kratos,’ which means power. Thus, a democratic state is one in which power emanates from the people. One might say, then, that authoritarianism is the opposite of a democracy. In an authoritarian regime, all power is concentrated in one person alone, often referred to as the dictator.

In this exhibit, we investigate the specific aspects of democracy and authoritarianism which clarify how these two systems of power and governance diverge, especially in terms of the effects these systems have on the citizens of the nation, and in terms of what each system likewise demands of its citizens.

As we deepen our reflection on Martial Law as a period in Philippine history, we also deepen our imagination of how Filipinos during Martial Law must have thought and felt about their situation, and what eventually drove them to choose democracy over authoritarianism on EDSA, and rise up as one to make that difference.


Selection of Leaders

One of the most basic features of a democracy that sets it apart from authoritarianism is the process by which leaders are chosen. Because a democracy is meant to uphold the power of the people, leaders are chosen such that they truly represent the people’s interests. This is done through fair and honest elections, whereby citizens may collectively express their choice of leaders through the ballot.

Leaders are thus chosen based on whom the electorate collectively selects, and the power of the leader stems from this mandate. To ensure the integrity of elections, they are administered by a neutral party, with independent observers for the voting and counting processes, and citizens must be able to vote in confidence, without intimidation or fear of violence. An election governed by citizens’ choice is designed so that elected representatives are those who truly listen to their people and aim to address their needs. Held at regular intervals, elections furthermore ensure that those in power cannot extend their term without the consent of the people.

In an authoritarian state, such mechanisms are rendered either obsolete or futile. Dictators want to cling to power, and so the very notion of an election is counter to that desire. Thus, authoritarian states often do away with elections entirely, taking the choice away from the people to begin with. In more insidious cases, dictators engage the electoral process but dishonestly. By rigging the system, while offering their citizens the illusion of choice, the staged elections only serve to legitimize the dictator’s continued rule, as it continues to seem as if the dictator enjoys the support of the public.




Civic Participation

Beyond the selection of leaders, another feature that differentiates democracies from authoritarian states is the level of civic participation that is expected and allowed. Democracies favor, and in fact thrive on, the active participation of its citizens in the political landscape, whereas dictators quash even the possibility of genuine participation.

In democracies, citizens are encouraged to participate by being informed about public issues, and freely expressing their opinions on these issues, as well as the decisions of their elected representatives. Citizens are likewise given the power to shape these decisions by being active members of civil society and non-government organizations. Even on the level of voting wisely in elections, and thereby choosing what interests should be prioritized in governance, citizens may actively participate in the exercise of power. Across these means of participation, citizens are enjoined to participate peacefully, respectfully toward the law, and with sensitivity to the plurality of views that exist in society.

Authoritarian states reject these modes of participation; and indeed, participation in principle. Public dissent is deemed public rebellion, a threat to the dictator’s unopposed tenure in power, and dictators inflict state violence to silence such opposition. Meanwhile, decision-making is limited to the dictator’s wishes as well, such that they may enact laws and decrees for the benefit of his own interest without appropriate mechanisms to keep their actions in check—no laws to limit them, no plurality to take into consideration.

Fundamental Liberties

Finally, what sets democracies apart from authoritarianism is their treatment of fundamental liberties. Truly democratic societies are those which respect and uphold the fundamental liberties of all their citizens, regardless of who they are. These liberties include the basic freedoms of expression, religion, assembly, and the press, as well as basic rights such as the right to privacy, to due process, and to life.

A dictator, on the other hand, does not respect these freedoms and rights. This is because these freedoms and rights typically make the dictator vulnerable to criticism, to the exposure of their abuses, and ultimately to the limits of their power. Because our fundamental liberties apply equally to all, they must apply equally to the dictator and ordinary citizens, whoever they may be. A dictator, therefore, often ignores or even violates these rights, to perpetuate themselves in power. So long as they can convince the populace that they are more important than everyone else, and subject to a different standard, they allow themselves that much more room to act with impunity.


Our study of the differences between democracy and authoritarianism really comes down to one question: What kind of society do you want to live in? As the exhibit above has shown, the design of a society shapes how power is obtained and exercised, and in doing so, likewise shapes the way in which citizens may live in freedom, harmony, and dignity.

But what follows from this question is perhaps even more important: What can you do to shape the society you want to live in? How can we live as engaged citizens, given the structure and order of our present society—and what can we do to make it better?



Illustrations by Joreen Navarro


  1. Arendt, H. (2005). The promise of politics. New York: Schocken Books.

  1. What is democracy. (2004). Stanford University. Retrieved from