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Forms of government.svg
Systems of government
Republican forms of government:
   Presidential republics with an executive presidency separate from the legislature
   Semi-presidential system with both an executive presidency and a separate head of government that leads the rest of the executive, who is appointed by the president and accountable to the legislature
   Parliamentary republics with a ceremonial and non-executive president, where a separate head of government leads the executive and is dependent on the confidence of the legislature
  Republics in which a combined head or directory of state and government is elected or nominated by the legislature

Monarchical forms of government:
   Constitutional monarchies with a ceremonial and non-executive monarch, where a separate head of government leads the executive
   Semi-constitutional monarchies with a ceremonial monarch, but where royalty still hold significant executive or legislative power
   Absolute monarchies where the monarch leads the executive

  Countries where constitutional provisions for government have been suspended
  Countries which do not fit any of the above systems (e.g. provisional government or unclear political situations)

A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, generally a state.


In the case of its broad associative definition, government normally consists of legislature, executive, and judiciary. Government is a means by which organizational policies are enforced, as well as a mechanism for determining policy. In many countries, the government has a kind of constitution, a statement of its governing principles and philosophy.

While all types of organizations have governance, the term government is often used more specifically to refer to the approximately 200 independent national governments and subsidiary organizations.

The main types of modern political systems recognized are democracies, totalitarian regimes, and, sitting between these two, authoritarian regimes with a variety of hybrid regimes. [1] [2] Modern classification system also include monarchies as a standalone entity or as a hybrid system of the main three. [3] [4] Historically prevalent forms of government include monarchy, aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, theocracy, and tyranny. These forms are not always mutually exclusive, and mixed governments are common. The main aspect of any philosophy of government is how political power is obtained, with the two main forms being electoral contest and hereditary succession.

Definitions and etymology

A government is the system to govern a state or community. The Columbia Encyclopedia defines government as "a system of social control under which the right to make laws, and the right to enforce them, is vested in a particular group in society". [5] While all types of organizations have governance, the word government is often used more specifically to refer to the approximately 200 independent national governments on Earth, as well as their subsidiary organizations, such as state and provincial governments as well as local governments. [6]

The word government derives from the Greek verb κυβερνάω [kubernáo] meaning to steer with a gubernaculum (rudder), the metaphorical sense being attested in the literature of classical antiquity, including Plato's Ship of State. [7] In British English, "government" sometimes refers to what's also known as a "ministry" or an "administration", i.e., the policies and government officials of a particular executive or governing coalition. Finally, government is also sometimes used in English as a synonym for rule or governance. [8]

In other languages, cognates may have a narrower scope, such as the government of Portugal, which is actually more similar to the concept of "administration".


Earliest governments

The moment and place that the phenomenon of human government developed is lost in time; however, history does record the formations of early governments. About 5,000 years ago, the first small city-states appeared. [9] By the third to second millenniums BC, some of these had developed into larger governed areas: Sumer, ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization, and the Yellow River civilization. [10]

One reason that explains the emergence of governments includes agriculture. Since the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture was an efficient method to create food surplus. This enabled people to specialize in non-agricultural activities. Some of them included being able to rule over others as an external authority. Others included social experimentation with diverse governance models. Both these activities formed the basis of governments. [11] These governments gradually became more complex as agriculture supported larger and denser populations, creating new interactions and social pressures that the government needed to control. David Christian explains

As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between different groups increased and the social pressure rose until, in a striking parallel with star formation, new structures suddenly appeared, together with a new level of complexity. Like stars, cities and states reorganize and energize the smaller objects within their gravitational field. [9]

Another explanation includes the need to properly manage infrastructure projects such as water infrastructure. Historically, this required centralized administration and complex social organisation, as seen in regions like Mesopotamia. [12] However, there is archaeological evidence that shows similar successes with more egalitarian and decentralized complex societies. [13]

Modern governments

Starting at the end of the 17th century, the prevalence of republican forms of government grew. The English Civil War and Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution contributed to the growth of representative forms of government. The Soviet Union was the first large country to have a Communist government. [6] Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy has become an even more prevalent form of government. [14]

In the nineteenth and twentieth century, there was a significant increase in the size and scale of government at the national level. [15] This included the regulation of corporations and the development of the welfare state. [14]

Political science


In political science, it has long been a goal to create a typology or taxonomy of polities, as typologies of political systems are not obvious. [16] It is especially important in the political science fields of comparative politics and international relations. Like all categories discerned within forms of government, the boundaries of government classifications are either fluid or ill-defined.

Superficially, all governments have an official de jure or ideal form. The United States is a federal constitutional republic, while the former Soviet Union was a federal socialist republic. However self-identification is not objective, and as Kopstein and Lichbach argue, defining regimes can be tricky, especially de facto , when both its government and its economy deviate in practice. [17] For example, Voltaire argued that "the Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire". [18] In practice, the Soviet Union was a centralized autocratic one-party state under Joseph Stalin.

Identifying a form of government is also difficult because many political systems originate as socio-economic movements and are then carried into governments by parties naming themselves after those movements; all with competing political-ideologies. Experience with those movements in power, and the strong ties they may have to particular forms of government, can cause them to be considered as forms of government in themselves.

Other complications include general non-consensus or deliberate "distortion or bias" of reasonable technical definitions to political ideologies and associated forms of governing, due to the nature of politics in the modern era. For example: The meaning of "conservatism" in the United States has little in common with the way the word's definition is used elsewhere. As Ribuffo notes, "what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism"; a "conservative" in Finland would be labeled a "socialist" in the United States. [19] Since the 1950s conservatism in the United States has been chiefly associated with right-wing politics and the Republican Party. However, during the era of segregation many Southern Democrats were conservatives, and they played a key role in the conservative coalition that controlled Congress from 1937 to 1963. [20] [lower-alpha 1]

Social-political ambiguity

Opinions vary by individuals concerning the types and properties of governments that exist. "Shades of gray" are commonplace in any government and its corresponding classification. Even the most liberal democracies limit rival political activity to one extent or another while the most tyrannical dictatorships must organize a broad base of support thereby creating difficulties for "pigeonholing" governments into narrow categories. Examples include the claims of the United States as being a plutocracy rather than a democracy since some American voters believe elections are being manipulated by wealthy Super PACs. [21] Some consider that government is to be reconceptualised where in times of climatic change the needs and desires of the individual are reshaped to generate sufficiency for all. [22]

Measurement of governing

A quality of a government can be measured by Government effectiveness index, which relates to political efficacy and state capacity. [23]


Plato in his book The Republic (375 BC) divided governments into five basic types (four being existing forms and one being Plato's ideal form, which exists "only in speech"): [24]

These five regimes progressively degenerate starting with aristocracy at the top and tyranny at the bottom. [25]

In his Politics , Aristotle elaborates on Plato's five regimes discussing them in relation to the government of one, of the few, and of the many. [26] From this follows the classification of forms of government according to which people have the authority to rule: either one person (an autocracy, such as monarchy), a select group of people (an aristocracy), or the people as a whole (a democracy, such as a republic).

Thomas Hobbes stated on their classification:

The difference of Commonwealths consisteth in the difference of the sovereign, or the person representative of all and every one of the multitude. And because the sovereignty is either in one man, or in an assembly of more than one; and into that assembly either every man hath right to enter, or not every one, but certain men distinguished from the rest; it is manifest there can be but three kinds of Commonwealth. For the representative must needs be one man, or more; and if more, then it is the assembly of all, or but of a part. When the representative is one man, then is the Commonwealth a monarchy; when an assembly of all that will come together, then it is a democracy, or popular Commonwealth; when an assembly of a part only, then it is called an aristocracy. Other kind of Commonwealth there can be none: for either one, or more, or all, must have the sovereign power (which I have shown to be indivisible) entire. [27]

Modern basic political systems

According to Yale professor Juan José Linz, there a three main types of political systems today: democracies, totalitarian regimes and, sitting between these two, authoritarian regimes with hybrid regimes. [2] [28] Another modern classification system includes monarchies as a standalone entity or as a hybrid system of the main three. [3] Scholars generally refer to a dictatorship as either a form of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. [29] [2] [30]


An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of a coup d'état or mass insurrection). [31] Absolute monarchy is a historically prevalent form of autocracy, wherein a monarch governs as a singular sovereign with no limitation on royal prerogative. Most absolute monarchies are hereditary, however some, notably the Holy See, are elected by an electoral college (such as the college of cardinals, or prince-electors). Other forms of autocracy include tyranny, despotism, and dictatorship.


Aristocracy [lower-alpha 2] is a form of government that places power in the hands of a small, elite ruling class, [32] such as a hereditary nobility or privileged caste. This class exercises minority rule, often as a landed timocracy, wealthy plutocracy, or oligarchy.

Many monarchies were aristocracies, although in modern constitutional monarchies the monarch may have little effective power. The term aristocracy could also refer to the non-peasant, non-servant, and non-city classes in the feudal system.[ citation needed ]


National governments which self-identify as democracies
National governments which do not self-identify as democracies Democracy claims.svg
  •   National governments which self-identify as democracies
  •   National governments which do not self-identify as democracies
Governments recognised as "electoral democracies" as of 2022
by the Freedom in the World survey Electoral democracies.svg
Governments recognised as "electoral democracies" as of 2022 by the Freedom in the World survey

Democracy is a system of government where citizens exercise power by voting and deliberation. In a direct democracy, the citizenry as a whole directly forms a participatory governing body and vote directly on each issue. In indirect democracy, the citizenry governs indirectly through the selection of representatives or delegates from among themselves, typically by election or, less commonly, by sortition. These select citizens then meet to form a governing body, such as a legislature or jury.

Some governments combine both direct and indirect democratic governance, wherein the citizenry selects representatives to administer day-to-day governance, while also reserving the right govern directly through popular initiatives, referendums (plebiscites), and the right of recall. In a constitutional democracy the powers of the majority are exercised within the framework of a representative democracy, but the constitution limits majority rule, usually through the provision by all of certain universal rights, such as freedom of speech or freedom of association. [33] [34]


A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a "public matter" (Latin : res publica), not the private concern or property of the rulers, and where offices of states are subsequently directly or indirectly elected or appointed rather than inherited. The people, or some significant portion of them, have supreme control over the government and where offices of state are elected or chosen by elected people. [35] [36]

A common simplified definition of a republic is a government where the head of state is not a monarch. [37] [38] Montesquieu included both democracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government. [39]

Other terms used to describe different republics include democratic republic, parliamentary republic, semi-presidential republic, presidential republic, federal republic, people's republic, and Islamic republic.


Federalism is a political concept in which a group of members are bound together by covenant with a governing representative head. The term "federalism" is also used to describe a system of government in which sovereignty is constitutionally divided between a central governing authority and constituent political units, variously called states, provinces or otherwise. Federalism is a system based upon democratic principles and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments, creating what is often called a federation. [40] Proponents are often called federalists.


Separation of powers in the US government, demonstrating the trias politica model Separation of powers.png
Separation of powers in the US government, demonstrating the trias politica model

Governments are typically organised into distinct institutions constituting branches of government each with particular powers, functions, duties, and responsibilities. The distribution of powers between these institutions differs between governments, as do the functions and number of branches. An independent, parallel distribution of powers between branches of government is the separation of powers. A shared, intersecting, or overlapping distribution of powers is the fusion of powers.

Governments are often organised into three branches with separate powers: a legislature, an executive, and a judiciary; this is sometimes called the trias politica model. However, in parliamentary and semi-presidential systems, branches of government often intersect, having shared membership and overlapping functions. Many governments have fewer or additional branches, such as an independent electoral commission or auditory branch. [41]

Party system

Presently, most governments are administered by members of an explicitly constituted political party which coordinates the activities of associated government officials and candidates for office. In a multiparty system of government, multiple political parties have the capacity to gain control of government offices, typically by competing in elections, although the effective number of parties may be limited.

A majority government is a government by one or more governing parties together holding an absolute majority of seats in the parliament, in contrast to a minority government in which they have only a plurality of seats and often depend on a confidence-and-supply arrangement with other parties. A coalition government is one in which multiple parties cooperate to form a government as part of a coalition agreement. In a single-party government a single party forms a government without the support of a coalition, as is typically the case with majority governments, [42] [43] but even a minority government may consist of just one party unable to find a willing coalition partner at the moment. [44]

A state that continuously maintains a single-party government within a (nominally) multiparty system possesses a dominant-party system. In a (nondemocratic) one-party system a single ruling party has the (more-or-less) exclusive right to form the government, and the formation of other parties may be obstructed or illegal. In some cases, a government may have a non-partisan system, as is the case with absolute monarchy or non-partisan democracy.


Democracy is the most popular form of government with more than half of the nations in the world being democracies-97 of 167 nations as of 2021. [45] However the world is becoming more authoritarian with a quarter of the world's population under democratically backsliding governments. [45]

Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017.
Full Democracies
Flawed Democracies
Hybrid Regimes
Authoritarian Regimes
0-2 EIU Democracy Index 2017.svg
Democracy Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017.
World first-and-second degree administrative levels Blank Map World Secondary Political Divisions.svg
World first-and-second degree administrative levels
A world map distinguishing countries of the world as federations (green) from unitary states (blue).
Unitary states
Federations Map of unitary and federal states.svg
A world map distinguishing countries of the world as federations (green) from unitary states (blue).

See also


  1. Frederickson 2000, p. 12, quote:"...conservative southern Democrats viewed warily the potential of New Deal programs to threaten the region's economic dependence on cheap labor while stirring the democratic ambitions of the disfranchised and undermining white supremacy."
  2. Ancient Greek: ἀριστοκρατίαaristokratía, from ἄριστος aristos "excellent", and κράτος kratos "power".
  3. Conducted by American think tank Freedom House, which is largely funded by the US government.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Democracy</span> Form of government

Democracy is a system of government in which state power is vested in the people or the general population of a state. According to the United Nations, democracy "provides an environment that respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in which the freely expressed will of people is exercised."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dictatorship</span> Form of government

A dictatorship is an autocratic form of government which is characterized by a leader, or a group of leaders, who hold governmental powers with few to no limitations. Politics in a dictatorship are controlled by a dictator, and they are facilitated through an inner circle of elites that includes advisers, generals, and other high-ranking officials. The dictator maintains control by influencing and appeasing the inner circle and repressing any opposition, which may include rival political parties, armed resistance, or disloyal members of the dictator's inner circle. Dictatorships can be formed by a military coup that overthrows the previous government through force or they can be formed by a self-coup in which elected leaders make their rule permanent. Dictatorships are authoritarian or totalitarian, and they can be classified as military dictatorships, one-party dictatorships, personalist dictatorships, or absolute monarchies.

Politics is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations among individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status. The branch of social science that studies politics and government is referred to as political science.

A republic, based on the Latin phrase res publica, is a state in which political power rests with the public through their representatives—in contrast to a monarchy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Totalitarianism</span> Extreme form of authoritarianism

Totalitarianism is a form of government and a political system that prohibits all opposition parties, outlaws individual and group opposition to the state and its claims, and exercises an extremely high if not complete degree of control and regulation over public and private life. It is regarded as the most extreme and complete form of authoritarianism. In totalitarian states, political power is often held by autocrats, such as dictators, who employ all-encompassing campaigns in which propaganda is broadcast by state-controlled mass media in order to control the citizenry.

Aristocracy is a form of government that places power in the hands of a small, privileged ruling class, the aristocrats. The term derives from the Greek αριστοκρατία (aristokratía), meaning 'rule of the best'.

Autocracy is a system of government in which absolute power is held by the ruler, known as an autocrat. It includes most forms of monarchy and dictatorship, while it is contrasted with democracy and feudalism. Various definitions of autocracy exist. They may restrict autocracy to a single individual, or they may also apply autocracy to a group of rulers who wield absolute power. The autocrat has total control over the exercise of civil liberties within the autocracy, choosing under what circumstances they may be exercised, if at all. Governments may also blend elements of autocracy and democracy, forming an anocracy. The concept of autocracy has been recognized in political philosophy since ancient times.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">One-party state</span> State in which only one party has the right to form the government

A one-party state, single-party state, one-party system or single-party system is a governance structure in which only a single political party controls the ruling system. All other parties are either outlawed or only enjoy limited and controlled participation in elections. Sometimes the term "de facto one-party state" is used to describe a dominant-party system that, unlike the one-party state, allows democratic multiparty elections, but the existing practices or balance of political power effectively prevent the opposition from winning power.

In politics, a regime is the form of government or the set of rules, cultural or social norms, etc., that regulate the operation of a government or institution and its interactions with society. The two broad categories of regimes that appear in most literature are democratic and autocratic. However, autocratic regimes can be broken down into a subset of many different types. The key similarity between all regimes are the presence of rulers, and either formal or informal institutions.

In political science, a political system means the type of political organization that can be recognized, observed or otherwise declared by a state.

An illiberal democracy describes a governing system that hides its "nondemocratic practices behind formally democratic institutions and procedures". There is a lack of consensus among experts about the exact definition of illiberal democracy or whether it even exists.

Mixed government is a form of government that combines elements of democracy, aristocracy and monarchy, ostensibly making impossible their respective degenerations which are conceived in Aristotle's Politics as anarchy, oligarchy and tyranny. The idea was popularized during classical antiquity in order to describe the stability, the innovation and the success of the republic as a form of government developed under the Roman constitution.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of democracy</span>

A democracy is a political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution, organization, or state, in which members have a share of power. Modern democracies are characterized by two capabilities of their citizens that differentiate them fundamentally from earlier forms of government: to intervene in society and have their sovereign held accountable to the international laws of other governments of their kind. Democratic government is commonly juxtaposed with oligarchic and monarchic systems, which are ruled by a minority and a sole monarch respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Liberal democracy</span> Political philosophy and form of government

Liberal democracy, substantive democracy, or western democracy is a form of government that combines the organization of a representative democracy with ideas from of liberal political philosophy.

Authoritarianism is a political system characterized by the rejection of democracy and political plurality. It involves the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting. Political scientists have created many typologies describing variations of authoritarian forms of government. Authoritarian regimes may be either autocratic or oligarchic and may be based upon the rule of a party or the military. States that have a blurred boundary between democracy and authoritarianism have some times been characterized as "hybrid democracies", "hybrid regimes" or "competitive authoritarian" states.

Anocracy, or semi-democracy, is a form of government that is loosely defined as part democracy and part dictatorship, or as a "regime that mixes democratic with autocratic features". Another definition classifies anocracy as "a regime that permits some means of participation through opposition group behavior but that has incomplete development of mechanisms to redress grievances." The term "semi-democratic" is reserved for stable regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. Scholars distinguish anocracies from autocracies and democracies in their capability to maintain authority, political dynamics, and policy agendas. Similarly, the regimes have democratic institutions that allow for nominal amounts of competition. Such regimes are particularly susceptible to outbreaks of armed conflict and unexpected or adverse changes in leadership.

A hybrid regime is a type of political system often created as a result of an incomplete democratic transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one. Hybrid regimes are categorized as having a combination of autocratic features with democratic ones and can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections. Hybrid regimes are commonly found in developing countries with abundant natural resources such as petro-states. Although these regimes experience civil unrest, they may be relatively stable and tenacious for decades at a time. There has been a rise in hybrid regimes since the end of the Cold War.


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Further reading