What Is a Federal Democracy?

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A federal democracy is a political system in which citizens have equal participation in government and government is divided into two sovereign levels, such as a national government and state governments. Because of the extensive geography and population of most federal states, federal democracies are representative in nature. Various countries in western society have adopted versions of federal democracy.

Federal democracies are democratic. They allow all citizens equal participation in political affairs, including voting and holding public office. Historically, the rights of citizenship were restricted to a small group of people, typically property-holding men. Following the democratic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, these rights have come to include all law-abiding adults.

Unlike the ancient Athenian democracy in which all citizens had a direct voice in deciding public policy, modern federal democracies rely on representative government. The immense size of contemporary states necessitates the election of officials, who exercise the power of government on behalf of the people.

Federal democracies divide power along the lines of a central authority and smaller units of government. In a federal system, units such as states and provinces are not dependents of the national government. Although they are subordinate to the central government, they exist independently of it and often have authority upon which the central authority may not encroach. Large countries such as the United States, Australia, Canada and Brazil use federal systems.