When it comes to types of government, it can be difficult to classify systems in a single word. Governments are ever-evolving, which means national governments are composed of several types. Explore examples of different types of governments found around the globe.
Basic Types of Government
While there are numerous political philosophies and systems, there are five specific types of government that are most common around the world. Most forms of government are some variation of one of the following.
In an authoritarian regime, the government has total control. Authoritarian regimes have typically earned this control by forceful means. While this seems pretty cut and dried, it is anything but. Authoritarian regimes aren’t always easy to recognize. They might still hold elections and have branches of government, but only a small group holds the power. Authoritarian regimes can be monarchies or various forms of government including communism, socialism and fascism.
Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is an authoritarian state as well as an absolute monarchy. All the power rests in the hands of the ruling family, the House of Saud, and the majority of the kingdom’s most important positions are filled by members of the royal family or report directly to the royal family.
During the 20th century, Argentina became authoritarian under President Juan Perón. Perón imposed mass censorship by closing down over 100 publications between 1943 and 1946 and having opposition members imprisoned and even tortured. After Perón went into exile in 1955, the following administrations also employed authoritarian tactics.
When Hugo Chávez became president of Venezuela in 1999, the country implemented democratic socialism and a presidential government. However, it also became increasingly authoritarian under Chávez and later Nicolás Maduro.
A popular form of government in the modern era is democracy, which is an example of a limited government. In direct contrast to an authoritarian government, a democracy exists when the people hold the power. Different types of democracy include direct and representative. Most democracies around the world are representative democracies, but there are many types of democracy.
The United States is often cited as an example of representative democracy, or a democratic republic. More specifically, the U. S. is a federal republic with a democratic government and a capitalistic economy. There are several other examples and types of democracy in the world, including, but certainly not limited to:
parliamentary democracy - In a parliamentary democracy, the head of state is different from the head of government. In the United Kingdom, the head of state is the monarch, who serves a primarily ceremonial role, and the head of government is the prime minister. Executive power is exercised by the House of Commons and House of Commons on behalf of the monarch to represent the people. The people vote for members of parliament in elections, and the party with the most representatives appoints the prime minister.
presidential democracy - The United States is an example of a presidential democracy. There are three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. The president is the head of the executive branch of government and the head of state. The people elect the president as well as the representatives in the Senate and House of Representatives, which make up the legislative branch. Only the judicial branch is not elected by the people; instead, they are chosen by the president.
direct democracy - Switzerland is a unique example of direct democracy in practice and has been since 1846. Unlike other democracies, in a direct democracy electorates may determine policy without legislative representatives, as opposed to electing representatives as proxies. For example, any citizen can challenge a law passed by parliament or propose an amendment to the constitution, and a referendum is mandatory to make changes to the constitution.
Monarchy is not as common as democracy now, but it was historically one of the most common forms of government. In a monarchy, one family rules, and their title is passed down through the generations. However, much like a democracy, who is in charge isn’t totally cut and dried. In an absolute monarchy, the king or ruler is in control of all the government. The more common constitutional monarchy has a royal family, but they serve mostly as ceremonial figures. Examples of monarchies that exist today include:
constitutional monarchy - In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth is the figurehead monarch, but parliament has most government control.
absolute monarchy - Vatican City is not only its own country, it's also a monarchy where one figure, the pope, rules as sovereign.
Similar to a monarchy, an oligarchy places power with a few people or families, typically a country’s wealthy elite. Unlike aristocracy, oligarchy is not necessarily dependent on noble birth, but on wealth or those who are deemed most “capable” of ruling. The term is derived from the Greek words for "few" (óligon) and "rule" (arkho).
There are multiple types of oligarchies, including autocracy (one dictator rules over everything), plutocracy (rule by the wealthy), stratocracy (rule by the military), and theocracy (rule by religion). Some historical and current examples of oligarchies include:
autocracy - Russia has had an oligarchy for centuries, beginning in the 15th century and continuing to the modern day. The wealthy elite have long wielded undue influence in government. In particular, the Russian czars positioned themselves as autocrats and later on after the revelation and rise of the Soviet Union, dictators like Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin also took on autocratic roles.
plutocracy - City-states like Athens and Sparta in Ancient Greece were ruled by wealthy men who shared king-like power, which they used to enrich themselves at the expense of the common people.
stratocracy - Following numerous wars and gradual expansion, a stratocratic system developed over time in Ancient Rome. After the Marian reforms in 107 B.C., the military became the de facto political power as loyalty transferred from the Senate to the generals.
theocracy - Modern Iran has a mixed theocratic government where there is a supreme leader, president and several councils, but the laws of the constitution and justice in the state are based on Islamic law.
When you think of a totalitarian government, it takes absolute power to the extreme. These leaders control not only the government but also the personal lives of their people. Citizens have no say in government, and the totalitarian regime is 100% in charge. This type of government is forceful and extreme and can come in the form of fascism, socialism or communism.
In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler used totalitarian tactics to achieve control over Germany with the goal of extending his power across Europe. He used this for control over the people as well as to justify the genocide of millions.
Leaders of the Soviet Union like Vladimir Lenin and especially Joseph Stalin silenced opposition to the state, going so far as to have political enemies imprisoned and even killed. His actions resulted in the deaths of millions.
Benito Mussolini used secret police to silence opposition to his regime in Fascist Italy.
Chairman Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic of China led the country in the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the collapse of the Chinese economy and the deaths of up to 45 million people.
In modern times, North Korea is a prime example of a totalitarian government because it is a one-party communist dictatorship where only one family, the Kims, hold the power.
Types of Government Found Around the World & in History
While the top five might be the types of governments you hear the most about, that list is far from complete. You’ll find several different types of government that exist. Some of these types fall into a larger category, while others are completely unique. Check out other types of government seen around the world and through history.
Anarchy isn’t a type of government; it’s actually the absence of one. In an anarchist society, a central governing body doesn’t exist. Many times, anarchy will take center stage when a government collapses. There are currently no true anarchist countries. The closest example in recent history was Somalia, which had no government from 1991 to 2006, but today it is a federal parliamentary republic. While anarchy has not been implemented on a large scale in the modern world, there are communities such as Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is one of the few anarchist communities that is still functioning.
In an aristocracy, the wealthy or noble hold the power. These privileged few leaders make up the ruling class or elite. Historically, Ancient Greece had an aristocratic government. A modern example is the royal family in the U.K., which has an aristocracy known as the peerage as well as a monarchy.
Typically, a dictatorship goes hand-in-hand with an authoritarian and totalitarian government. In this government form, a dictator rules. They typically assert their authority using military power, which is called a military dictatorship. There have been many dictatorships throughout history. Famous examples include Joseph Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq and North Korea.
Federalism is all about dividing power. Not only does the government have central power, but local states or regions also have their own specific powers. For example, in the U.S. the federal government is the central power, but the individual states all have their own regional and state governing laws. This means state laws might be different in California than they are in Tennessee.
Many times, you see “Republic of” this or that country. When something is a true republic as in republicanism, it means the citizens have the power. They have the voting power and the power to make changes in their government. Now, republicanism can get quite confusing because it typically goes hand-in-hand with federalism and theocracy. Some countries have a parliamentary system and thus a parliamentary republic and countries with presidents are presidential republics. Germany is a notable example of a republic, as it is specifically a federal, democratic, constitutional republic. Some examples of republics include Austria, Chile, the Czech Republic, Israel, Mexico, the Philippines, Uganda, and more.
Types of governments are about who rules. In a theocracy, the ruler is God or a deity. The creation of laws comes from religious texts, scriptures and spiritual leaders. A theocracy also mixes with other types of governments. For example, Iran is an Islamic democracy, and the Vatican government is dictated by the Christian religion and pope.
Indigenous tribes around the globe use a form of government called tribalism. In this form of government, you follow the dictates and rules of your tribe, which is made of specific people groups or those with the same ideals. There can be a council of elders making decisions, but not always. Each tribe is unique. While tribalism is becoming less and less common, tribes in Africa still use this form of government.
Economically Driven Types of Government
Economy determines government type, too. See it in action by looking at capitalism, socialism and communism.
While capitalism is actually a type of economy, many times, it works to drive a government and political power. In capitalism, the government doesn’t run the economy; instead, private-ownership corporations and businesses do. While the U.S. is a mixed economy, many would consider it capitalistic. Other examples include Switzerland and Hong Kong.
China is probably one of the most famous historical examples of a communist government. Communism is a theory created by Karl Marx where everything is publicly owned rather than privately like in capitalism. It’s an attempt to create a classless society, but it typically happens through a violent revolution. Beyond China, communist examples include the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Laos.
Socialism and communism both come from the philosophies of Karl Marx for a utopian, classless society. However, while communism uses violence to achieve its aims, socialism places emphasis on making small changes through reforms and laws. Socialist government examples found around the world include Algeria, Cuba, the Scandinavian countries, Tanzania and Venezuela.
Different Types of Governments
There are many types of governments, and often it is difficult to classify a country’s system as a single, specific form of government. What form of government does your country have? You can learn more about how governments work by checking out federal bureaucracy examples.