Democracy and Rule of Law: Are they Complimentary or Contradictory to Each Other

Ankush Chauhan[1]


In an ideal democratic government all the organs are under the control of law. This control is an important characteristic of democratic mechanism. But sometimes this powerful legal system becomes an obstacle in sovereignty of people. The function of a democratic country is to serve people in rightful manner. This function is carried out by multiple organs of government. These organs in execution of their roles sometimes impose sanctions on people. This raise a question whether the government and the country is ruling or serving the country.

Philosophers and politicians like to say that the rule of law is an element of democracy. The presumption behind this is that law is an unchanging set of principles which tends to resolve conflicts between different groups of people in an impartial manner. But it may happen in the course of time that lawmakers and the people sitting in government positions may not remain impartial, they may fall prey to their own personal and societal biases. Furthermore, a close look at various legal systems and constitutions of countries around the world indicates that law is ever-changing. Many long standing statute and laws are reversed and new statutes are formulated.

However, it would be wrong to describe rule of law and democracy interchangeably. The term rule of law includes equality before law, separation of powers,

As described above, in countries with democratic mechanisms the sovereignty of common people may be hampered and their rights and interests may be prejudiced. In this context a conflict arises between rule of law and democracy.

Democracy: Meaning and Possible Concerns

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary democracy is a kind of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of rules.[2] In simple words democracy is how society selects people who will run the administration and hold power. Democracy is its etymological sense is opposite to autocracy. Autocracy is composed of two Greek words, Autos meaning self and Kratos meaning power. Thus autocracy means power to self or dictatorship. On the other hand, the word democracy is composed of Demos and Kratos. Demos mean the people and Kratos means power. So democracy means power to the people who in turn mean that the people decide what institutions and laws will govern them and their land.

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However not all democratic countries are run by the people which are of same mind. Some people may want to increase their wealth and some may want to gain power by creating chaos in the administration. Some people in the government may simply want to impose their will on others just to satiate their egoistical feelings. Whatever may be the biases and reasons of people, it hampers the rights and interests of common subjects of these kinds of ‘democratic countries’. This raises concern about he protection of rights and interests of common people because in an ideal democracy the rights and interests of common people are not endangered rather they are nurtured and given new opportunities to get ahead in life.

It is not necessary that the people who are sitting in the official positions in the government are greedy and they work against the public notions, but there have been many instances that government officials of democratic countries have worked against these very public notions. There are always those people want to earn wealth by diminishing that of others. There are people in business who want to maximize their profit by giving minimum wages to their workers. Also in many a developing country there are families who own most of the land. In a democratic country it is not right to say that all people have malice in their mind but they may not appear as they look like.

Rule of law

Rule of law in its narrow sense mean a government by law. It refers to an administration in which all people and institutions are subject and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced. According to Merriam Webster Dictionary rule of law refers to a situation in which the people of country respect and obey its legal and justice system.[3] The World Justice Project defines rule of law as a rule based system in which following four universal principles are upheld:

1. Accountability- The government as well as private sectors a5e accountable under the law.

2. Just Laws- The laws are clear, publicized, stable and just; are applied evenly; and protect fundamental rights, including the security of persons and property and certain core human rights.

3. Open Government- The processes by which laws are enacted, administered and enforced are accessible, fair and efficient.

4. Accessible and impartial dispute resolution- Justice is delivered timely by competent, ethical and independent representatives and neutrals that are accessible have adequate resources and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.[4]

There is no core definition of rule of law. The concept of rule of law cannot be summed up in a watertight compartment. Most of the content of rule of law can be described in two points:

  1. That the people (including government) should be ruled by the law and obey it.
  2. The law should be such that people will be able and be willing to be guided by it.
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The above points make it clear that in the rule of law people are treated equal and the government become accountable towards people in their discharge of functions. However, the concept of rule of law is also much larger than this. The concept of rule of law can be understood by its effects on society.

A society which adheres to rule of law ensures that-

  1. All persons and organizations including the government are subject to and accountable to the law.
  2. The law is clear, known, and enforced.
  3. The court system is independent and resolves disputes in a fair manner.
  4. No person shall be treated in an arbitrary and unjust manner and shall not be arrested and imprisoned without just reason.
  5. Punishment must be determined by a court and be proportionate to the offense.

Rule of law is more than simply following of law by the government and the people. It involves other concepts such as checks and balance on government power, separation of powers, independence of judiciary, access to justice and right to fair trial.

Conflict between Democracy and Rule of Law

As discussed above there seem to be a wide gap between democracy and rule of law. In democracy the rule administration is running in the hands of people who are elected by people but their accountability seems to be less. The people who are sitting in official positions in government may be there because of common people but in this democratic mechanism their responsibilities do not seem to be fulfilling. The concept of equality that says all people are equal and nobody is greater or bigger than other seems worthless because some people always are in a privileged position than others. On the other hand, in rule of law it is inherent that all people are equal and they are accountable and responsible towards the people who elected them. There are also various other concepts which are attached to the concept of rule of law, such as separation of powers, fair trial, independence of judiciary, equality before law, accountability etc. Because of this there seems to be a conflict between the concepts of democracy and rule of law. This conflict causes loopholes and gaps in the democratic structures of countries and the discharge of functions by various government organs become derailed. This conflict also causes a dilemma to whether or not the qualities of rule of law should be imbibed in a democratic administration or not.

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Nevertheless, for a suitable government and smooth functioning f that government the harmonization of these two mechanisms is much needed. The concept of democracy is a requisite for public aspirations to be fulfilled and rule of law is an ideal framework which is needed to for fulfilling those aspirations in an ideal and suitable way.

Democracy and rule of law are not contradictory but rather complimentary to each other

If these concepts are looked at in broader and wider sense it appears that these two concepts compliment and supplement each other. In simple terms democracy focuses on how people are selected to hold power while rule of law is concerned with how that power is exercised. The underlying principle of rule of law is that every citizen is subject to and accountable under the law including lawmaker and the people in government. In this sense the rule of law seems to encourage governance through democratic ways. By strengthening the accountability and equality factor of people, actually the norms and basic principles of democracy are strengthened. In this sense building democracy and rule of law may be mutually coexistent. The rule of law is a crucial factor for the advancement of democracy, which is based on equal rights and accountability. By strengthening the rule of law, the rights and interests of all people are protected and arbitrary exercise of power is checked which cornerstones of our modern democracy are.


Democracy is the foundation of a country which is successful and in whose citizens live in peace and harmony then rule of law is the pillar on which this country stands. Democracy and rule of law conceptually may not be similar and may appear to be conflicting but their harmonization can bring a crumbling and conflicting country to a place where the country and prosper and live in harmony. Democracy and rule of law together can bring a country from anarchy and transform it into a country where people of all faiths, religion can live together in peace, harmony and prosperity.

[1] Student, LLB 2nd year, College- New Law College BVDU Pune.

[2] Democracy, Merriam Webster Dictionary (Merriam Webster, U.S revised edition, 2009).

[3] Rule of law, Merriam Webster Dictionary(Merriam Webster, U.S revised edition, 2009).

[4] Rule of law, World Justice Project (November 27, 2019),