What Forms of Government Exist?

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Most people have an idea of what “government” means, but there are a few definitions. It can refer to systems and institutions, the people working at the institutions, or the process that dictates the organization of those systems and institutions. When a nation chooses a form of government, principles like freedom, equality, security, democracy, diplomacy, the economy, and more are affected. How many forms are government exist? What are countries using?

Authoritarian governments

Authoritarianism is when state authority rules most – if not all – parts of society and the lives of its citizens. It rejects political plurality and instead centralizes power, so the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting are significantly reduced or eliminated. There are several forms of government based on authoritarian traits. Here are three of the most significant:

  • Absolute monarchy

An absolute monarchy is when a monarch (often a king or queen) rules without a constitution, laws that restrain their power, or any legal opposition. Most of the time, the succession of power is hereditary. In the Middle Ages, most of western Europe used an absolute monarchy, but after the French Revolution, this form of government was not as common. Vatican City, which is the smallest country in the world, is considered an absolute monarchy. It issues its own passports and license plates, prints its own stamps, mints its own money, and places the Pope in top leadership.

  • Theocracy

Speaking of Vatican City, it’s a blend of a theocracy and absolute monarchy because the pope is a religious leader. Saudi Arabia has a similar structure because while it’s ruled by a monarch, they must comply with the Qur’an and Sharia law. Historically, theocracies are forms of government where a deity is in charge. A special group, which typically consists of religious clergy, interprets and carries out the divine’s desires. Because there’s no separation of church and state in this form of government, theocracies are often oppressive. Democracy and freedom of religion are not usually present. Ancient Egypt is one of the clearest examples of a true theocracy. The Pharaohs were believed to be direct descendants of Ra, the Sun God, and essential intercessors between humans and the gods. With the help of high priests and other respected advisors, the Pharoah’s role was to ensure the gods’ will was done on earth. Egypt was governed by a theocracy for about 3,000 years.

  • Totalitarianism

In totalitarian governments, one party rules the country. There are no restrictions on its power, so the party is free to interfere in everything, including business and the private lives of citizens. Nazi Germany became a totalitarian state following the election of Adolph Hitler as Chancellor and his party’s power grab. The Nazi party cemented its power and eliminated all opposition by making the Nazis the only legal political organization in Germany, abolishing trade unions, and instituting new policies. Germany under the Nazis is also often classified as a dictatorship, which is a form of government where one person (Hitler) or a small group (the Nazi party) enjoy absolute power. That said, totalitarian governments and dictatorships are technically different as totalitarianism consolidates power with one party – usually through elections – and justifies its policies through state power. A dictatorship is all about the power of one person and doesn’t concern itself with consent.

Popular governments

A popular government is the opposite of an authoritarian regime. Instead of centralizing power, popular governments are controlled by the people through the election of representatives and other legislators. These types of governments have become more common in the modern era and often represent a blend of different structures. Here are four examples:

  • Democracy

A democracy is a government where the people have political control. The heads of state have limited power. There is also the separation of powers and protection of rights. There are a few forms of democracy (which we’ll discuss below), but experts describe six essential traits: popular sovereignty, separation of powers, public participation, an electoral system, due process of law, and the protection of human rights.

  • Direct democracy

Direct democracies are governments where the citizens establish all the laws and policies. There are no monarchs, leaders, or representatives; citizens are the ones in charge. The Athenian city-state in ancient Greece used direct democracy, though they had a narrow definition of “citizens” that excluded women, slaves, and children. About 1,000 male citizens voted on everything.

In modern times, Switzerland is the closest thing to a direct democracy thanks to three main instruments: mandatory, popular initiative, and optional referendums. To amend the constitution, a double majority is needed. That means the amendment must be approved by a majority of the people and a majority of the 26 cantons, which are member states of the Swiss Confederation. Citizens can also demand a change to the constitution using a popular initiative. The third instrument – the optional referendum – can be requested when parliament passes new legislation or wants to amend existing legislation.

  • Representative democracy

In this form of government, people elect officials to represent their interests. Around 60% of the world’s countries use some kind of representative democracy, like the United States. Why not a direct democracy? In larger countries, direct democracy would be chaotic. Most representative democracies share certain traits, such as an independent judiciary body and a constitution, which defines the powers of the elected representatives. In many representative democracies, elected representatives have the power to select government leaders.

  • Parliamentary government

Parliamentary governments (which include parliamentary democracies and parliamentary republics) are systems where the executive and legislative branches are blended. Members of the legislature – as opposed to citizens – choose the top government official and members of the cabinet. The government head is often a Prime Minister, like in the United Kingdom. There, voters elect members of the British House of Commons. Whichever party gets the most seats is then in charge of choosing the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet. As long as the legislature is happy, the prime minister and cabinet continue to serve for the next five years. In Canada, the main difference is that the leader of the political party that wins the most parliamentary seats is automatically the Prime Minister.

Other forms of government

There are three other government types everyone should know: communism, socialism, and oligarchy. These are often discussed – and often misunderstood – forms of government that have existed in various forms throughout history.

  • Communism

Communism is a political and social ideology that some states have based their governments on. Developed by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, communism aims to establish a society without class hierarchies. Everyone owns all the property and wealth; nothing is owned by individuals. In practice, communism has looked more like an authoritarian government than a system of equal power and ownership distribution. From 1917 to 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the major political party of Russia and the Soviet Union. It controlled every aspect of the economy and when Joseph Stalin rose to power, he pulled a dictator move and purged the party of opposition. Thousands were executed while millions of others were imprisoned or exiled to forced-labor camps. The Soviet Union failed for many reasons, but communism in Eastern Europe took its final breath following Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s many reforms.

Currently, China is the most globally significant communist state. In 1949, the Communist Party took over China, unleashing a brutal regime led by Mao Zedong. The Great Chinese Famine killed between 15-49 million people, while the Cultural Revolution and its purging of old customs and culture led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. Today, China is a mostly capitalist system, but the economy is still highly influenced by the state.

  • Socialism

Like communism, socialism is a political and social ideology that strives for public ownership. Wealth, property, and natural resources are not meant to be owned by individuals, but instead collectively shared. While socialism as a political movement dates back to the Industrial Revolution, ideas about communal ownership are much older. When governments embrace socialism, its role is to equally distribute property and resources, but in practice, socialist governments have looked more like authoritarian governments. For many, communist governments like the Soviet Union and China represent socialism taken to its natural end.

Today, some countries embrace a form of democratic socialism. In this system, governments provide essential services (like healthcare and education) for free or for very cheap. Unlike true socialism, however, democratic socialists don’t believe the government should be in total control of the economy. Countries like Norway, Finland, Great Britain, Switzerland, and New Zealand have enacted some socialist policies, though it isn’t accurate to call them “socialist” countries.

  • Oligarchy

Oligarchies are government systems run by a handful of people. Aristotle coined the term when discussing aristocracy. In his view, an aristocracy was when the best members of society ruled, but an oligarchy occurred when the few rulers were corrupt. Because the term is subjective, no country is officially an oligarchy, but places like Russia have been labeled oligarchies. Why? While Russia technically holds elections, a 2020 constitutional amendment led by Putin reset his term limit, so he could remain in power longer. Russian elections are also notoriously unreliable and influenced by the richest and most powerful citizens.

Some people are also concerned about the United States and its weakening democracy. While it’s still true that a rich person’s vote counts just as much as everyone else’s, the richest Americans and corporations have significantly more influence over policymaking. It’s also much harder to hold political office without independent wealth and support from the most powerful. Oligarchy means “rule by few,” which makes it incompatible with democratic ideals. For countries like the United States, a slide into oligarchy should be extremely concerning.