Showing Consent to Political Governance

People must have ways of showing consent to political governance if everyone is to be confident that the system is fully legitimate

The election of politicians in a democracy gives them authority.  It is a clearly visible sign that the population has accepted them.  And that is an important part of their legitimacy, as described previously (  People’s consent is only meaningful, though, if there is a credible alternative that they can vote for.  The opposition must be a possible ‘government in waiting’.  A political system is undemocratic and authoritarian if opposition has been suppressed (

Elections in a democracy are not a panacea and they don’t completely guarantee that the public is satisfied.  There are practical issues: elections are a crude and imprecise means of representing people’s wishes (6.3.2) and representation isn’t always effective (  Voting is nonetheless an important way of showing consent to political governance.  And it is a form of public negotiation that is less effective if some people don’t vote:

●  A society can rapidly become unstable if people, merely by not voting, undermine an elected government.  For example, “Violent clashes have taken place in Kosovo between ethnic Serbs and police belonging to the Albanian-led government” after some Kosovan Serbs boycotted local elections in April 2023.  Serbians have never accepted Kosovo’s independence, even though they are only 6% of its population.

●  Not voting can be a form of silent protest against the system, and a reason to consider changing it.  A spoilt ballot paper is a way of indicating this sentiment in some systems.

●  Apathy might be regarded as regrettable but it is not necessarily a sign of an illegitimate system.  A ‘don’t know’ or ‘don’t care’ box on the ballot might be revealing.

There is thus a good case for making voting compulsory, as it already is in some countries, to reveal more about whether a democratic system is fully legitimate.  It also increases people’s sense of having participated in negotiations on governance issues.

Voting is not the only way of showing consent to political governance.  In both democratic and authoritarian systems, approval can be indicated in other forms of interaction between the population and those who govern.  As discussed later, consultation processes (6.5.3), people’s freedom to speak out (6.8.3), meaningful political negotiation (6.8.4), and procedural ways of getting the best from politicians (6.8.5) are all important.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6354.htm.