Constitutional democracies include those regimes which have essentially similar ethos to be classified in one group without reference to the nature of political executive available in one or the other.
The common characteristics of constitutional regimes are the presence of effective restraints on the holders of power so that they act in a responsible manner and not arbitrarily. The society is pluralistic and no single group or element enjoys dominant position or plays a unique role. In such a society there prevails a spirit of tolerance, willingness to compromise and commitment to constitutionalism.
Elections are free, unrestricted and uncontrolled. Freedom to dissent is the accepted political norm and consequently the presence of a strong and responsible Opposition is the sine qua non of a constitutional democracy.
Both the majority and the minority have a strong commitment to the democratic process and, accordingly, the victors and the vanquished at the polls accept the positions they assume and believe that at some future date their positions may be reversed without any violent action.
As there is wide agreement on the benefits of the present rules of the game, there prevails a sense of unity; a consensus binds the people together and gives them a concern for the welfare of the community as a whole. The Opposition and other interest groups exercise a tangible impact on the decisions and policies of the government.
Constitutional democracies have in common the traditions of civility, political neutrality of the army and the civil service and the existence of the rule of law. Rule of law is the crucial factor which ensures legal impartiality and absence or reduction to a minimum of arbitrariness. There is only one kind of law and one set of courts to which those who make and enforce law are amenable together with the citizens.
All governmental acts are according to the law and subject to control by appropriate authorities and effective remedies are available against the State, if ever it ventures to transgress the law. Constitutional democracies invariably ensure the presence of an independent and impartial judiciary which protects individual rights.
There is only one commitment of the judiciary, to uphold the Constitution and the law. In polities of this kind government does not control, not even largely influence, the mass media of communication.
Constitutional democracies exist, with few exceptions, in the older and more developed countries where politics is obviously competitive and free and where ruling group is responsible and participation widespread. The influence is not concentrated nor are the avenues to influence closed. The dispersal of influence means that limits are set to what rulers may do and also to what is generally regarded as ‘political.’
Democracy in its traditional Western form has not spread to the newer nations of the world. Even in contemporary Western Europe regimes, such as French and the Spanish have come into existence by non-legal action or pressure.
Similarly, regimes in the first lap of industrialization can rarely afford the luxury of political democracy or constitutional restraint or power. Economic development, especially industrialization, tends to disrupt traditional social relationships and behaviour.
Economic planning is the prerequisite of industrialization, but it is a process of standardization and concentration of authority which demands from the people acquiescence and submission.
“Constitutionalism, the allocation of a higher sanction to the basic laws than to the immediate wishes of a ruler,” says Michael Curtis “marks an important stage to a democratic regime.” Power in a constitutional regime is limited, diffused and competitive and a large number of the persons who wield it are directly and periodically accountable to the people from whom they ultimately derive power.
There is a continuous public scrutiny of what the ruler does and he is subject to daily and periodic assessment. The problem for the tyrant, as Aristotle knew, is to find people who will tell him the truth. Constitutional regime rarely suffers from this disadvantage. The people to tell the truth is obvious, the ultimate ratio in a democratic polity.