The Greeks of ancient Athens coined the term “democracy” to describe their system of self-rule. It is derived from demos, meaning common people, and kratos, meaning strength. The city-states of ancient Greece, including Athens, ruled themselves. They allowed all landowners to express themselves at the legislative assembly. So, is Athens the oldest democracy in the world? Probably not.
The ancient Greek empires fell a long time ago, meaning they are not the oldest continuous democracy. Also, in Athenian democracy, women and slaves were not allowed to participate. Many others claim to hold the title of the oldest democracy, but their claims are controversial.
For instance, Iceland has had its parliament since 930 AD when the Vikings set up legislative bodies there. But Iceland was ruled by other countries such as Norway and Denmark at different points of time, and gained independence from Denmark only in 1944.
Another claimant, the Isle of Man, has had a local parliament for over a thousand years, but it’s not a country. It was ruled by the kings of Norway, Scotland, and England between 12th and 13th centuries before falling into the hands of English Crown. It remains a crown dependency rather than a country.
San Marino is also a strong contender to the title of the world’s oldest democracy. It was founded way back in 301 CE as the Republic of San Marino by a stonemason-turned saint named Marinus. The Republic was not recognized by the Pope until 1631 AD. The Statute of 1600 acts as San Marino’s de facto constitution. Many historians have rejected San Marino’s claim because it was under the control of the Fascist Party between 1923 and 1943. The Fascists had banned all other political parties in 1926, turning San Marino into a one-party state rather than a democracy.
In the modern world, the United States is hailed as the world’s oldest democracy. It declared independence on July 4, 1776 and the US Constitution was ratified in 1789. It has the oldest constitutional government. People can vote to elect their own representative and government.
But, and it’s a big But, the US didn’t allow non-White people to vote until 1870. “Black Male Suffrage” came into effect with the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870. And women (both Black and White) were not allowed to vote in the US until 1920.
Women in the United Kingdom were not allowed to vote until 1928. Swiss women gained the right to vote only in 1971. Women’s suffrage became a thing in Germany in 1918. A so-called democracy where half the adult population is prohibited from voting cannot be a democracy in true sense.
So, which is the world’s oldest democratic country in real sense? It has to be Finland or New Zealand. The colony of New Zealand didn’t become a nation until 1907, but it was the world’s first self-governing colony to grant women the right to vote in 1893. However, Kiwi women gained the right to stand in parliamentary elections only in 1919.
Finland, on the other hand, gave women the right to vote and stand in parliamentary elections in 1906. The world’s first female members of the parliament were also elected in Finland in 1907.
If you don’t take into account the voting rights of women and black people, the United States is the world’s oldest continuous democracy with a constitutional government. The ancient Greek city-states laid the foundation for democracy, which will continue to evolve in the coming decades.
But historians have had differences on the criteria for defining a democracy. Do you want to add something here? Let’s discuss.