In this question, I proposed a system of democracy for a city state that is being encouraged away from autocratic rule, however the system I proposed appeared to have many faults.

As a bit of background, this is a city state with an area of influence a few hundred kilometres across. Previously, rule was held by a series of vampiric immortal autocrats, and the slayer of an autocrat (which event could only happen during a vampiric ritual) traditionally became the next autocrat. The autocrats were fairly unpopular to the populace due to their vampiric habits, but could not be removed due to their effective immortality and magical invulnerability, and the fact that the latest autocrat had some quite progressive and beneficial ideas that benefited much of the community (that wasn't being drained) significantly. This city state is at a technological level roughly equivalent to early renaissance Europe, though with some magic that isn't particularly significant to this question.

However, an individual has overcome the last autocrat during the ritual, but is so repulsed by it that they want to eliminate the tradition entirely. As such, they want to abdicate their position of power and establish a democracy so that there will be no single autocrat who could re-establish the traditional practise of the vampiric ritual, for long enough that the tradition can no longer said to be the tradition.

This individual has some knowledge of our various democracies, however the citizens of the city state do not have experience of any form of government other than autocratic rule, and any thoughts of democracy would be rare and strictly speculative.

The question:

What form of democracy could be implemented that is easiest for the literate but democracy-ignorant townspeople to understand and practise, which would guarantee that no one person could be considered to be an autocrat for the foreseeable future, and would provide the fewest opportunities for corruption or abuse? Magic can be involved, but the less the better, and preferably won't be required at all.


The townspeople don't actually need to be completely ignorant of democracy. Yes, they had an autocrat, but he was more concerned with finding and consuming his latest victim and enjoying his other lordly prerogatives than with actually doing the work of ruling. It is highly likely that since educated, independent-minded people make better victims, he would have encouraged said education and independence, to a degree.

The townspeople would likely have not wanted to bother their lord with trivialities that could bring them to his attention and result in someone being devoured or executed, so with the lord's tendency to just say "I want this done", and the populace's desire to get the 'this' done without bothering their lord with questions or failures, that they could have developed at least the precursor mindset to democracy by themselves over the course of a few hundred years, by electing their own councils and committees who would oversee the actual work of running the city. The elected officials may not have been the best the city had to offer, but they would have had to be competent in order to avoid lordly displeasure and attention... Democracy then becomes a matter of replacing a largely figurehead autocrat.

  • $\begingroup$ Are we in the modern world, or is this a medieval Venice or ancient Athens? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ @SerbanTanasa Renaissance Europe, apparently. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:21
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Ok, I'll venture an answer based on that assumption. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:22
  • $\begingroup$ The setting is like renaissance Europe, but exists almost in isolation, and has only a few accessible neighbours, with whom relations are limited and due to the difficulties in travel, largely peaceful. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:41
  • $\begingroup$ If the last autocrat had popular and beneficial ideas, wouldn't he be supported? And then wouldn't your deposer now come under fire for his actions? Why would people want to listen to what he has to say? $\endgroup$
    – Nick2253
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 15:08

7 Answers 7


That's tough. It's a huge question.

Let's see, where to start? The era is actually relevant for several reasons. One is population size. The second is technology level, which matters mostly because it determines the cost and availability of newspapers, books, and communications networks that bring news from abroad and from different regions. Early Renaissance has the printing press and can easily have political pamphlets and newspapers as well. That's great for your democrats. Information must flow.

First of all, you'll need a constitution. These are sets of rules that would be virtually unalterable, except by vast super-majorities of the population (at least 66%, and hopefully more). This is vital in order to guarantee things like due process, basic right to life, property rights etc. Thus, a constitution limits the amount of change (damage?) successive governments can effect.

Your constitution has to specify the rules of the game. It is vital to have a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and if possible to guarantee the independence of the Military and the Treasury/Mint. Let's go through the branches one at a time.

Judiciary. This normally includes Judges and state Prosecutors. These guys must be free from political influence as much as possible to prevent the judicial branch for being used for personal or political vendettas. This is called the rule of law and is VERY IMPORTANT, possibly the single most important thing there is in a polity. They must assess the constitutionality of the acts of the legislature and the executive. While they have no enforcement power (that'd be the Executive), their words and pronouncements should carry a heavy moral authority. Presumably, your society already has judges and prosecutors. If they're not vampires, give them office for life or something.

Executive They are responsible for actually doing stuff. So building roads, canals, aqueducts, schools, hospitals, reacting to natural disasters, going to war, directing the spies and agents abroad, negotiating important alliances and trade relations. Because of the nature of the decision-making process required (swift, decisive action is often required), this will be the most powerful branch, likely comprised of many departments/ministries but ultimately headed by a single person or a small committee. This will likely be the most prestigious branch.

One way to reduce a bit the power of (and burden on) the executive is to delegate as much power as possible locally, to villages and groups of villages in the countryside, and wards and city neighborhoods in the Capital.

In order to keep your Executive in check, you want to make their funding depend on the agreement of the Legislature, and their actions subject to review (and reversal) by the Judiciary. It is your choice whether you make direct elections for the executive body (I probably wouldn't, at first, to help avoid demagogues that are sure to prey on an unseasoned populace) or have the Legislature elect this person. The nomination can be based on popular signatures, nomination by the Legislature or by some body tasked specifically with this function.

Legislature. These men and women represent the voice of the people. Here, you first have to decide who can vote. You can have one-person-one-vote rules, a weighted voting system (based of wealth, birth or professional/social status), limited universal voting (where only a subset of the population can vote, such as only males, but more usually also restricted on income), or restricted voting (where you have a limited set of electors, such as powerful nobles and sometimes rich merchants and industrialists who can vote).

Second, you have to decide on how elections are to work. You can have individual districts (restricted geographically) or at-large voting (the whole country is a single district). In each district, you have to decide who wins. You can have US-style plurality systems (whoever wins the most votes wins), a threshold system (must have a certain number of votes in at-large systems or a percent of votes in multi-district, usually 50%). If multi-district, districts are often (not always, see US Senate) similar sizes and elected legislators usually have equal votes. In at-large systems, that's usually the case too, but nothing could stop you from making voting power equal to votes cast for them, up to a certain threshold, say 5-10% of total votes in the legislature. You can also have a lowest threshold for representation, and have all the wasted votes redistribute proportionally as extra voting power for the elected.

Once you've sorted out electorate and elections, you have to decide structure of legislature (one chamber, two?), term lengths and term limits (if any). Do all the legislators need to get re-elected at the same time, or (like in the US Senate) 1/3 every 2 years?

Treasury - To prevent debasement of the coinage, inflation and other bad things, there must be a degree of independence. Perhaps very long terms, or judicial protections from executive and legislative meddling?

Military - This is the biggest worry. In history, most democracies and republics fall to military coups and demagogues. Often charismatic military leaders ARE demagogues (See Venezuela, Chavez). The military has lots of hard power (they can kill and kidnap people), so they can generally silence domestic opposition if they so choose to. A tradition of non-intervention in politics by the military is most helpful. It's doable though. Venice stayed coup-free for almost 500 years. You may also want to read this anti-coup primer.

So how do you get there from here? Oh, that's the tricky part. Most autocracies transit through an oligarchy before they become democratic, and many young democracies revert to autocracy. However, you might want to read up on the positive examples, such as the formidable Old Swiss Confederacy and their Landsgemeinde and the Icelandic Althing.

TL;DR - You need a constitution, separation of powers, rule of law, election laws, mechanisms and traditions to prevent coups, and lots of time to set this up. If you only had, say, 1 month, you'd be in a bit of a quandary.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 the American system is made especially to prevent autocrats. This being said, it does have weak spots. Such as the possibility to increase the number of judges at the Supreme court in order to put your friends there. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 3:29

The people are ignorant of democracy, but they need a democracy. That's tough. If you simply had them total governing power overnight, they'll mess up. So your new leader needs to transition. For a short while, s/he needs to stay entirely in charge. Then follow some steps.

  1. Educate the populace. They need to know about governing themselves. Open new education programs, working off of existing schools, that teach the adults about this strange new system of democracy.
  2. Delegate new region leaders. Divy the nation up into regions, and have each region have about ten leaders (I'll explain the regions more below). They need to continue the program for about a year. In the meantime, have them govern, but only give them a tiny bit of power. We need almost no government for a few months if we want nobody to have much power.
  3. Set the people free. When you think the people know enough, let them lead themselves. Give them control of the new government system that I'm about to explain.

Here's what I propose:

  1. Break up the city-state into smaller regions. Make each region contain, say - oh, just divide it up into somewhere between 50 and 100 regions. But make sure that there aren't too many people in each region so that politics stay personal.
  2. Each person has to be familiar with the workings of the political system. But they can't deal with large-scale matters. So have each person vote one every matter that impacts his or her region. If you've got about 10,000 people, this doesn't seem too hard. Have voting on major issues take place over the span of, say, a week, with discussions in each village leading up to it.
  3. Make each region autonomous except in cases of war or drastic foreign policy disputes. Handle outside problems on a region-by-region basis. So if (in our world, where the US is this region) France has a problem with New York, let New York handle it. If war comes, then other regions will be obliged to join in.
  4. Make a loose coalition. Think 19th-century Germany/Prussia before there was any substantial unification. Sure, there were problems. But they were settled.

In short, make the ultimate democracy, where each and every person can directly vote.

Problems (and Solutions)

  1. The setup is weak. If a large country comes in and takes out one of the states, they could be annihilated. But here's where the coalition comes in: Have everyone send in forces. Organization can be implemented in this time of emergency, but, once again, have no one person in power. Or two. Or three.
  2. The regions could descend into isolation out of not being in close contact with each other. But is this a problem you need to solve? Just keep the coalition alive, and each region can be largely self-sufficient. Trade can keep any necessary ties strong. You shouldn't have too much trouble.
  3. One region could try to conquer another. Sure, they're on equal footing at first, but this could change. This is a risk you'll have to take. But I'm sure that the other regions will rise to the attacked regions defense. Because if the would-be-conqueror takes over other regions, it will quickly dominate, and all the others will fall.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The populace is ignorant of democracy, not ignorant in general. They have as good an understanding of foreign policy (as little as there is due to having few accessible neighbouring states) as we might in their situation. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ @MontyWild That changes everything, then. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:38
  • $\begingroup$ Have you considered that this solution is flawed due to the very nature of the problem itself? The issue is that we have an immortal (not killable by humans, but alble to kill humans) entity governing. Previous entities ruled the land because they couldn't be killed and the people had no choice but to submit to him or be destroyed. Once this entity frees the populace, what's to stop some other entity that would've killed the "liberator" anyway from opressing the people once again? Sure the liberator could fight off this potential new ruler, but still, as the OP said, entities can kill entities $\endgroup$
    – Oak
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 3:13

A transition from an autocratic government to a democratic one is not a trivial task. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem.

You should expect that there would be a great power struggle from many different fronts. This change in power cannot exist in a vacuum. There would be fighting within the ranks if everyone in the government is not on board with democracy. Other neighboring nations may see this as a sign of weakness and indeed, the change in power can leave your nation very vulnerable to attack.

There may be other bodies in your world which is similar to the church autocracy which existed in medieval Europe. Bishops, Cardinals and The Pope had a great deal of power and often did not have direct oversight from the monarchy. In some ways they had more power than kings.

This kind of change would take many years. It could literally span hundreds of years until you could have a successful democracy. The people that exist in that time would be poorly suited to be political leaders because they would most likely be poorly educated and completely illiterate.

Democracy is not something you can just give a nation. The people have to want it, demand it, fight for it, and be willing to die for it. The common person would probably have no idea what democracy even was.

You would have to follow the path that Europe took to establish democracy. It went through many different periods that eventually led to the European renaissance. The renaissance did not come from nowhere. Teachings from other parts of the world that did not suffer as much from the fall of the Roman empire eventually made it back to Europe. There was a new found interest in the arts and sciences that was nearly absent for hundreds of years. The monarchy, and especially the church forbade such teachings, but they were being taught in secret. The church would execute people for having new ideas and brand them as heretics. They would also ban and destroy any writing that the church did not agree with.

The church eventually lost much of its influence, and people could study science and arts without the fear of persecution. Schools and universities were formed. Eventually there were many extremely well educated people around which were capable of running a democratic government.

Since your leader is effectively immortal, they could make incremental changes to push the government towards democracy. They could start small and start cutting some of the red tape it would take for someone to start their own business. They could establish schools and universities, use their magical power to make life for the average person better, establish building codes and housing standards, build sewer systems and provide sanitation and clean water, build hospitals, etc.

  • $\begingroup$ You missed the point slightly - the immortal autocrat is a vampire, and while progressive, is unpopular due to the volume of deaths from drained victims and those executed because they didn't want to be drained. The new leader doesn't want the job, and wants to get out of it as quickly as possible without leaving a single ruler who would just become the next vampire. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ Is the new leader a human or vampire? That part wasn't clear. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 11:50
  • $\begingroup$ The new leader could be a vampire, but chose not to be one by choosing not to be the autocrat. The 'vampirism' isn't being an actual toothy, undead vampire, but practising a sacrificial ritual that results in the survivor gaining the deceased's power. The new leader was fortunate enough to survive despite being intended to be the deceased, and by the traditions of the town, became the new leader, but doesn't want the job or any part of the ritual. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 26, 2015 at 21:04

The usual transition in Earth history has been to go from a monarchy (autocrat in charge of as many other autocrats as he can bully, coerce, or otherwise keep in line) through a parliamentary monarchy (autocrat is still in charge, but now he needs the approval of a council to do some things) to a representative democracy (the council is elected; the autocrat is, at most, a figurehead).

In your situation, I'd recommend that your individual take up the autocrat's position, and appoint a council of advisers. Over time, he should make council membership elective and transfer actual power from himself to the council.

The eventual goal is to create something like a council-manager arrangement. Since power rests in a group rather than an individual, it's harder for a corrupt charismatic leader to take over -- though you are likely to see an oligarchy form in a generation or two.

  • $\begingroup$ That's not an option for this situation. Any autocrat will be expected to perpetuate the vampiric ritual (which is anathema to this person), and this individual has duties elsewhere and has only a month or two to set something up before they must leave. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:33
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ In that case, he should find whichever organized crime leader has the most followers, appoint him dictator, and get out of the way. It'll short-circuit the inevitable, and hopefully reduce the factional violence. As the United States has found in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, you cannot build a democratic tradition in a few months. It takes generations. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:37
  • $\begingroup$ Then the new organised crime leader become dictator would become the vampire... and the cycle begins again. Not an option. $\endgroup$
    – Monty Wild
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:39
  • $\begingroup$ You've written yourself into a corner. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 2:45
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @MontyWild Mark's right. There is no way this could be achieved in a month or two unless there were already things in motion somehow. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Jan 22, 2015 at 9:28

Personally, in a situation like this, I think it would be safest for the autocrat to become a benevolent dictator. Then introduce parts of democracy. Slowly give the people more and more responsibility (and education!). Depending on the populace it could be as little as a few years (it helps there is a small population) that it could be turned into a full democracy.

The USSR is still trying to recover from the switch from a totalitarian government to what ever it can be called today. (I'd call it a semi-benevolent dictatorship).


From our modern world perspective, we know that some countries have made the democratic transition with success and others have failed miserably. The 95% left are somewhere in between or they just have not completed the transition yet.

Most countries that made the transition never had a democratic system before. We tend to see it as something natural but we forget that most countries had a tough time before they became real democracies. Your leaders must be aware that most people will probably not oppose a return to the autocrat regime. They don't like vampire but the new tyrant could be human. So, they need to set barriers to prevent others to concentrate the powers into their own hands. Serban made a good answer on the separation of powers. It is not a perfect solution but it makes it a lot harder for one individual to control everything.

Religious/cultural differences: However, many countries tried to replicate systems of the United-States or France during their transition but failed. Is some cases, the division of powers is not enough. It won't solve the problems in Irak. The religious differences and their incapacity to work together made the country explode. Many other like Libya were held together by the force of the authoritarian regime and without it they need to set mechanisms to assure the representation of each community in the government like Lebanon did. Each community have a representation in the government and they can control certain ministries... So, it's not possible to have a government that exclude a community form power.

A city state with an area of influence a few hundred kilometres across.

That sounds like Azerbaijan (most of the money is there and 50% of the population live in/near the capital Baku). It started great like many other post soviet states if we exclude the war with Armenia (they are still at war). The problems of most of these states is that the president quickly started to modify the constitution to gain more power while weakening the rest of the parliament.

Why I am talking about that country? Because they have an important strategic resource: oil. The only economic development that took place in the country in the last 20 years are all about oil. It's now around 80% of their GDP. Other countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are almost in the exact same situation. They are we is called rentier states. There a theory in political science that link the exploration of natural resources with autocratic tendencies, especially when the countries are dependent on oil exportation. There is the need to control the industry in order to enforce a monopoly, to control the prices, control the regulations. Oil is almost their only source of revenue and they want it all. This is an obstacle to the transition but it is not a problem if: the country has plenty of other revenues and if the state is already an established democracy. The later is only in theory because some people argue that Canada and Alberta have autocratic tendencies partly in the form of deregulation.

For my personal campaign, I have a country that is a producer of a rare metal with magic proprieties. It is rare and the country has a large share of the world market. The objects made of this metal can enhance magical powers and is viewed like oil or uranium today for magicians who can afford it. In that country, the mining, the processing and selling of the metal is all strictly managed by the state. Unfortunately, the metal is too rare and too costly so it doesn't take a large part of the country's GDP. It's easier for a small state to be dependant on one resource or maybe one type of industry. A diversified economy might help to prevent this.


In response to the additional constraints in your updated question (that the not-an-autocrat has only a month or two do this, and there may be some proto-democratic institutions):

Your best bet is to use various craftsmans' guilds as your starting point. They're likely to have traditions that are at least notionally democratic (such as election of a guild leader from the senior craftsmen). Put together a Council of Guilds to run the city. Each guild provides one representative selected by whatever means that guild wants (in practice, this will mean "appointment by the guild leader"). Decisions within the council are made through simple majority vote.

This setup has its faults (eg. the 15-member Goldsmiths' Guild has the same influence as the 1000-member Carpenters' Guild, while the non-guild farmers have no voice in government), but it's something that can be set up in a month or two, avoids concentrating power in any one individual, and if you're very lucky, it will transform into a representative democracy over time.


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