Forms of Governments

While we might attempt to list the evolution of politics in terms of the many forms of governments devised; history suggests that many were formed in crisis as a response to both physical and social pressures within a nation state at some given point in time. In this historical context, most early forms of government tended to be authoritarian in scope, although many examples of this form of government still exist to this day. However, we need to recognise that many authoritarian governments were not established through any formal political process and simply reflected a process by which political power was obtained. While many may disagree with the following simplification outlining just 3 main forms of governments, it may still be sufficient to discuss the main premise on which most governments operate.

  • Authoritarian:
    As the name suggests, this form of government simply attempts to impose its authority on the population. In this respect, historical monarchies of various types and dictatorships were often authoritarian in scope in that they operated without necessarily making any reference to judicial law or written constitution. By extension, it might also be argued that a totalitarian government is simply another form of authoritarian government, which seeks to subordinate the individual within the state by controlling not only all political and economic matters, but also the attitudes, values and beliefs of its population. So, as a generalisation, authoritarian governments often represent a very fundamental, but none the less powerful, form of government that has probably played a role in the history of most nation states in one form or another.

  • Democracy:
    In basic terms, democracy might simply be described as a system of government where representatives are elected based on some voting scheme undertaken by some portion of the population, which does not always reflect a clear majority. History suggests that the idea of democracy has been around for a long time, e.g. Greek city-states, although the voting system was often restricted to certain groups and may have involved little more than a show of hands at a small gathering. However, democracy has evolved in step with human society and its perception of morality, albeit at different speeds, which we might also link to the idea of political correctness. However, even today, when democracy does not appear compatible with idea of an authoritarian government, there are examples in existence where the democratic process is simply 'corrupted' into electing an authoritarian rather than democratic government.

  • Constitutional:
    By definition, this form of government operates under a constitution, usually in written form, which sets out its most fundamental laws and the rights of its population. However, it should be noted that many constitutions are essentially historical documents, which are then subject to amendments via the three functions previously outlined, i.e. executive, legislative and judicial. Therefore, power can still reside in centralised institutions, which can then be subject to both changing political ideologies and corruption. The issue of political ideology will be outlined in the next discussion, although it may not necessarily affect the mechanics of government, ideology invariably changes the direction of travel. Despite these caveats, we might still highlight the idea of a constitution as another evolutionary step, although it is invariably built on the stability established by earlier forms of authoritarian government with possibly limited democratic concepts.

Of course, in practice, there are many other forms of government, although it is possible that most can be described in terms of a permutation of the basic forms outlined above, e.g. constitutional monarchy, constitutional democracy, parliamentary democracy, democratic republic. By way of an example, the UK government as a particularly convoluted form of democracy in that the UK still retains the notional idea of a monarch, although it essentially has no political power. Unlike most modern democracies, the UK does not have a formal constitution, although it might cite a historical document called the Magna Carta, signed by a reluctant King John in 1215, plus a collection of legislative 'Acts of Parliament' and judicial judgments. Within its parliamentary system, the role of the executive exists in the form of a Prime Minster, who is also the leader of the political party in power and therefore an active participant within the legislative. This is in contrast to the US, where the president essentially represents an executive, while congress and the senate represent the legislative. However, in both examples, the judiciary is, in principle, meant to act independently of both the executive and legislative institutions in its interpretation of judicial law.

Note: In a 'republic', the role of a constitutional monarchy is invariably replaced by some form of executive president, which when combined with the legislative function forms a centralised authority, i.e. federal or national.

In the US, the legislative or congress comprises of two chambers, i.e. the House of Representatives and the Senate, and while both are part of the legislative function, the Senate might also be seen to represent subordinate regions, e.g. states, which then have a degree of political autonomy over their own local affairs. So while the complexity of the UK and US political systems has grown over time, both basically conform to the idea of being a democracy with constitutional and parliamentary variations with possibly a hint of authoritarianism hidden within their political party structures and centralised policy making. However, while it has been argued that many governments can be generally described in terms of the three types outlined, there is one possible exception that also needs to be highlighted in today's world, i.e. a theocratic government. This form of government wants the supremacy of some form of deity, e.g. God, to be recognised as the source of all laws, which may extend into all aspects of social behaviour, i.e. it is possibly totalitarian in scope. While it is believed that this deity has to be the supreme or ultimate executive of a theocratic government; from a practical perspective most deities seem to require Earth bound representatives, e.g. popes, imams, ayatollahs, who then head up an equally Earth bound legislative, e.g. bishops, mullahs. However, while there are some possible examples of truly theocratic governments, most tend to operate in parallel with some form of political structure, such that both religious and civil law can be administered. In this context, the religious branch of the government may be essentially authoritarian in its interpretation of religious law; while the political branch may conform to some democratic principles in the development of its wider judicial law.