The term ‘government’ refers to a system or a group of people who administer a large community, usually a state. A government exercises political and executive powers through various legal institutions established within the state.
It was Aristotle in the 4th century B.C who identified three different types of government; aristocracy, monarchy, and enlightened democracy, which he named polity. Since then many forms of government have evolved including oligarchy, democracy, theocracy, autocracy, and republic.
Each government type has its own governing philosophy and principles. The differences among government forms are practically based on the power structure, power source, and political ideology.
The earliest known forms of government appeared sometimes about 5,000 years ago. By third millennium BC major government institutions started appearing in Ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley, and Sumer. Below, we have provided a brief overview of different types of government, their past, and relevant examples.
U.S president Donald Trump with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh | Image Courtesy: The White House/Shealah Craighead
An autocracy is a form of government in which a single individual holds all the power without being restrained by a constitution or any written law whatsoever. The term is derived from Greek words autós and krátos (self-strength) and was historically used for an emperor. The Russian tsars used autocrat title in order to distinguish their reign from constitutional monarchs in other parts of Europe.
The earliest known example of autocracy is from 27 B.C when Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire, effectively kept all the powers only to himself despite establishing the Roman Senate. Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and Spain under the rule of Francisco Franco are some recent examples of an autocratic regime.
Absolute monarchies in Saudi, UAE, Oman, Brunei and autocratic dictatorship in North Korea and Turkmenistan are the main modern-day forms of autocracy.
Oligarchy is a political system in which the power resides with a small group of people. These people are recognized as a dominant minority and often distinguished by family ties, military or political influence, nobility and/or wealth. Oligarchies are usually tyrannical; unaccountable and unrestrained by law.
The concept of oligarchy is not new as it was Aristotle who first used this term to describe “the rule of the few” or a system which is governed by a wealthy minority. The political setup in the Roman Empire is one of the earliest known examples of oligarchy.
In 1911, a well-known sociologist Robert Michels through his book Political Parties theorized “Iron law of oligarchy” in which he argued that every large organization including democracies are likely to turn into oligarchies at a certain point in time.
In recent years, many political thinkers have characterized the current political conditions in the United States as oligarchic in nature. One of them is a noted philosopher Noam Chomsky who has stated that “The U.S behaves nothing like a democracy”. Furthermore, the former president Jimmy Carter during a public interview in 2017 said that the country has become “more of an oligarchy than a democracy“.
Oligarchy can come in different forms. Aristocracy, which is historically more significant, is a power structure in which the supreme authority resides with a small, privileged class. Theocracy is another form of oligarchy in which a state is ruled by the head of a religious institution. Vatican City (Christian Theocracy) and Iran (Islamic Theocracy) are examples of theocratic states.
Corazon Aquino taking oath of the office after becoming the first female president of Philippines
Democracy is a form of government in which citizens play a much greater role in the decision-making process. While there is no hard definition exist for democracy, political freedom, legal equality, and rule of law are long been identified as some of its important characteristics.
There are two main types of democracy: direct democracy and representative democracy. In a direct democracy, citizens take active participation in every major and minor issue related to the state. Direct democracies often use sortition or a lottery system through which a group of citizens is randomly picked to perform crucial administrative tasks from making changes in laws to recommending new ones.
The earliest known use of such system can be traced back to the 5th century Athens, where most citizens (excluding women, slaves, and foreigners) voted directly on legislative and executive issues.
In a representative democracy, however, citizens utilize their voting powers to elect government officials or representatives who then form a governing body e.g legislature.
One important attribute of a representative system is that even though the representatives are duly elected by the people, they have the freedom to act in people’s interest in a way they find appropriate.
Beginning of the Republic of Metz in 1289 by Auguste Migette
Out of 206 sovereign states around the world, nearly 160 uses the word “republic” in their official names. A republic, in general, is a state in which the topmost position (head of the state or government) is not inherited. Keep in mind that such states don’t necessarily have to be democratic.
The term republic is derived from Latin word res publica meaning “public matter” and was first used to describe the political setup in the ancient Rome (509 BC to 27 BC). There are four types of republic government in function today; parliamentary republic and presidential republic, Socialist and Islamic Republic.
In a parliamentary republic, the executive power resides with the head of government (prime minister) who is elected by as well as accountable to the legislature or parliament. There is also a clear distinction between the head of state and head of government. India, Germany, Finland, and Italy are few examples of a parliamentary republic.
In a presidential system, on the contrary, the power resides with the head of state (president) who is elected directly by the citizens (in most cases) and is not accountable to the legislature. The United States is perhaps the best example of such political and administrative setup.
People’s Republic is a state which is based on socialist principles. It may or may not follow Marxist-Leninist ideology, which was initially established in the former Soviet Union. The people’ Republic of China and Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) are currently the only two socialist states which follow such ideology.
Another form of republic government is the Islamic Republic. It’s basically a state based on the ideas of Islamic democracy which is traditionally opposed to absolute monarchy. Afghanistan, Iran, Mauritania, and Pakistan are the four recognized Islamic Republic states.
Members of the British Royal Family
A monarchy is a form of government in which a family, often called the royalty, represent the nation and is at the top of the political system. The family member with whom the power usually resides is called a monarch (equivalent to a head of state). The position of a monarch, contrary to a republic government, is inherited (mostly) and lasts until one’s abdication or death.
At the moment, there are about 45 sovereign nations in the world that have monarchs as head of state. A majority of these countries are actually constitutional monarchy in which the monarch has more of a ceremonial role and holds next to no political power. The British Monarchy is perhaps the best example of such a political system.
Another form of monarchy is an absolute monarchy in which the monarch, often an autocrat, has complete control over the state and is not restricted by the legislature or any written law. Countries that maintain the absolute form of monarchy are Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, U.A.E and Eswatini.
Although the United Arab Emirates is an absolute monarchy, it’s essentially a federation of several states, each of which is governed by individual rulers. This makes U.A.E a federal monarchy. Other countries like Australia, Belgium, Canada, and Malaysia are also federal monarchy (not absolute monarchy though).
2. Unitary And Federal State
A state is called a unitary state when it’s chiefly or exclusively governed by the central government without any powerful sub-national administrative divisions. The central government in such countries, however, have the authority to create as well as abolish sub-national administrations at any point in time either to ease their administrative duties or expand power.
A large number of U.N recognized states have unitary power structure including France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and China. Most of the countries in Africa are a unitary state.
In a federal state, on the other hand, there is a decentralization of power in which sub-national governments share administrative duties with the central government in accordance with the written law. Sub-national units are protected by the constitution and cannot be hindered or changed by the central government.
Some of the largest countries in the world including the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, Brazil, and India have a federal form of government in place.
The entry point of Freetown Christiania, an autonomous neighborhood in Copenhagen Image Courtesy: Bruno Jargot
Anarchy refers to society or state in which traditional forms of government(s) and any official establishments are abolished. Anarchism advocates for self-governed/stateless societies where government institutions are replaced by voluntary ones. In simple terms, anarchy is a society without hierarchy.
Anarchism considers any hierarchy or state as unnecessary and even harmful. It is fundamentally different from anti-statism. While anti-statism is disapproval or opposition of state’s interference into the private lives of citizens, anarchy is the complete abolition of any form of government. Those who advocate for anarchy are called anarchist.
The term anarchy was initially used as a synonym for leaderlessness, but in 1840 French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon described it as “order without power.” Joseph Proudhon was the first ever person to declare himself an anarchist.
Over the past five centuries or so, the collapse of a state due to one reason or the other has fallen into anarchy. During the Thirty Years’ War, central Europe endured a near-anarchic state from 1618 to 1648. It was followed by the English Civil War (1642–1651). The Russian Civil War that broke out before the end of First World War saw the rise of the anarchist political moment called the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine.
Anarchist communities were once widespread in Spain during the regime of Francisco Franco. Albania and Somalia have also witnessed anarchy in the recent past.