Different systems of government

Democratic states

Many states claim to be democracies but only about half of the world’s countries satisfy all the necessary requirements. A democracy is generally viewed as a state where the government is elected by the citizens in elections that:

• are free and fair

• are free from intimidation (a secret ballot)

• count each person’s vote the same

• have a choice of candidates/parties representing the ranges of interests and ideas in society.

This enables people to hold their representatives and the government to account by allowing them to be replaced by alternatives when they become dissatisfied with them. Democratic states abide by the rule of law and citizens have various rights and freedoms, which can be exercised without interference from the state. For example, citizens enjoy freedom of speech, which allows them to criticise their representatives and ensure that representatives are responsive to them. There will be a range of pressure groups, allowing people to promote their interests on single issues – another way of holding those in power to account. Citizens should enjoy protection of their human and civil rights through an independent judiciary. In liberal democracies, the rule of law means that the rights of all citizens are equally protected. The separation of powers between the executive/ legislature and the judiciary ensures this. As a result, the government is expected to act within the law and the judiciary can hold it accountable for legal breaches.

Example: The UK

The UK – is considered to be one of the first modern democracies. The UK evolved gradually from a monarchical system of government. Representation, an important element of any democracy, emerged in the 13th century with the creation of the English parliament. However, it was not until the 19th century that parliament represented a significant proportion of the people and it took until 1928 for there to be universal suffrage – somewhat later than many other democracies, such as the USA.

The signing of Magna Carta in 1215 marked the beginning of the recognition of rights and government respect of the rule of law, and elections featured a choice of candidates from the 14th century. Political parties emerged in the late 18th century with the Whigs and the Tories, which became the modern-day Liberal Democrats and Conservatives. They were joined in 1900 by the Labour Party and throughout the 20th century a number of other political parties developed, including the Scottish National Party (1934), Plaid Cymru (1925), Green Party (1985) and UK Independence Party (1993). These parties represent a range of social groups (traditionally, Labour stood for the working class, while the Conservatives stood for the middle class) and ideas (nationalism, environmentalism and anti- Europeanism).

British citizens enjoy protection of their rights through the Supreme Court and the European Convention on Human Rights. Elections are competitive and there is regular alternation of parties in government. There are thousands of pressure groups representing many different interests and viewpoints, and governments frequently change their policies under pressure from these groups.

Democracy : What is democracy?


Semi-Democratic States

Some states can be considered to be semi-democratic states as have many of the characteristics associated with democracy, such as elections and representation, but elections may not be free and fair, and representation may be skewed to allow one party to dominate the representative assembly. There will be a constitution and rule of law, but the judiciary may not be independent and the constitution may be subverted in whole or in part. In theory there may be freedom of speech and pressure groups may be allowed, along with a range of political parties, but the main media outlets may be state-controlled and political protest may be suppressed.

Semi-democratic states can also be referred to as ‘majoritarian’ (rather than liberal) democracies. This is because the interests of the majority are placed above those of the minority e.g Turkey and the Kurds. Since World War I, Kurds in Turkey have been the victims of persistent assaults on their ethnic, cultural, and religious identity and economic and political status by successive Turkish governments.

Example: The Russian Federation

For most of its history, Russia has had authoritarian systems of government: first tsarism and then communism. It became a democracy in 1991 with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union. It adopted a semi-presidential system of government, with executive power shared between a prime minister, who leads the Council of Ministers, and a directly elected president. There is a representative legislature comprising two chambers: a lower chamber called the State Duma, with 450 elected representatives, and an upper chamber called the Federal Council with two representatives from each of the 89 federal units. There are regular elections of the Duma (parliament) and the presidency.


Elections are subject to ballot rigging and intimidation as well as control of the media. In 2012, many were surprised when Vladimir Putin was elected as president, as the opinion polls suggested that most Russians had voted for his opponents. Moreover, Putin had already served two terms as president between 2000 and 2008, and the constitution stipulates a two-term limit for the presidency. Putin circumvented the rules by serving as prime minister to his protégé Medvedev and then sought election as president in 2012. The Putin presidencies have been dogged by accusations of press censorship, brutal repression of protest, wide-spead state corruption and claims that orders for the assassinations of political opponents came from the highest levels of government. There is a range of political parties but Putin’s United Russia Party dominates the Duma. In 2016, it won 343 seats (76 per cent of the available seats). In 2022 the invasion of Ukraine led to the elimination of all critical media and harsh repression of any opposition.



Non-democratic states

The distinguishing features of non-democratic states are an absence of the most important characteristics of democracy: free and fair elections and the choice of alternative candidates and political parties. It is hard to find states that have no democratic qualities. The spread of liberal democracy and the promotion of democratic ideals by international organisations and social movements and pressure groups has meant the vast majority of states pay lip service to the idea of democracy, even if they do not practise it in full. The governments of non-democratic states lack any democratic legitimacy. Since a non-democratic government is not accountable to its citizenry, it, therefore, lacks a popular mandate. These sorts of governments are classed as authoritarian. This means that those in government have sole authority for the running of the country. They are permanent and do not, therefore, need to seek the electoral endorsement of their citizens.

Example: China

China claims to be a democracy. There are elections to the 3000-member National People’s Congress and there is some choice of candidates between independents, Communists and representatives of one of the eight communist-sanctioned parties created before 1950. However, rival political parties and pressure groups are banned. Turnout in these elections is exceptionally high (usually more than 90 per cent), but this is because failure to vote is seen as unpatriotic and criminal. Congress debates issues put before it by the State Council (the executive) but rarely attempts to amend or delay legislation. Nor does it scrutinise the activities of the State Council. Rather, its purpose is to provide approval for government initiatives. Members of the State Council are elected by the Congress, but these are not open and transparent elections. Election depends on patronage, political favours and position in the administrative apparatus. There is no freedom of speech in China. The media is state-owned and internet providers are censored. Criticism of the regime is suppressed; it is taboo to discuss or attempt to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989 and no figures have been released of the number of people who were killed or imprisoned. World-renowned artist, Ai Weiwei, has been censored and detained in what is thought to be punishment for his investigation of the deaths of students in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which he blames on poorly constructed student accommodation, and his support for democracy and human rights.

Compare the official view of China's democracy in the cartoon with the experiences of a woman attempting to run for election as an independent candidate.

Autocratic states

Also called Authoritarian states they place power with one individual or one ruling party. They rule in an autocratic fashion, since political dissent is not tolerated. The government controls the media and the judiciary acts according to the government’s wishes, so threatening human rights. Alternative political parties are banned and state control is total. Authoritarian leaders do not willingly relinquish power and so the government perpetuates itself without ever seeking legitimisation from its citizens. The most repressive of authoritarian states are generally referred to as totalitarian states. For example, North Korea is best termed a totalitarian state. This form of government was the norm in the past, when it took the form of hereditary monarchy. There are few monarchies leſt, with some notable exceptions, such as Saudi Arabia. Autocrats in the 20th and 21st centuries have been leaders of political movements that either came to power through democratic elections, such as Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, or by violent revolutions, for example Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Some autocracies are led by military leaders, such as Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.

Autocratic states ban opposition parties and brutally suppress protest. There may be a political party associated with the single leader, but it does not operate in the same way as a democratic political party. Membership of the political party may be necessary for holding government office and certain occupations. Advancement in the political party will depend on the patronage of the leader. The leader is not subject to any form of accountability and enjoys cult status. This status is claimed on the basis of superhuman qualities or divine appointment.

Example: Syria

Officially, Syria is a republic. In reality, however, it is an authoritarian regime that exhibits only the forms of a democratic system. Although citizens ostensibly vote for the President and members of Parliament, they do not have the right to change their government. The late President Hafiz Al-Asad was confirmed by unopposed referenda five times. His son, Bashar Al-Asad, also was confirmed by an unopposed referendum in July 2000. The President and his senior aides, particularly those in the military and security services, ultimately make most basic decisions in political and economic life, with a very limited degree of public accountability. Political opposition to the President is not tolerated. There were elections to the People’s Council of Syria in 2016 in the midst of the civil war, but votes were only held for the 250 seats in government-controlled areas. However, power rests with Assad, his family and members of the Alawite Shia minority that dominate the Ba’ath Party. Human Rights Watch, an international pressure group, declared in 2010 that Syria had one of the worst human-rights records in the world. There is strict censorship of the media and education by the Ba’ath Party.


Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire, before being granted independence from the French mandate in 1945. The Syrian Arab Republic (Syria) suffered a number of military coups. There was a brief union with Egypt in the late 1950s, ending in 1961. The Ba’ath Party came to power in 1963, led by Captain Hafez al-Assad. He seized control of the party and became leader of Syria in 1971. On his death in 2000 he was replaced by his son, Bashar al-Assad.


Failed states

The Fund for Peace, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation that works to prevent violent conflict and promote sustainable security, uses four criteria to identify a failed state. A failed state is a state that is unable to perform its key role of ensuring domestic order by monopolizing the use of force within its territory. Examples of failed states in recent years include Cambodia, Haiti, Rwanda, Liberia and Somalia. Failed states are no longer able to operate as viable political units, in that they lack a credible system of law and order, often being gripped by civil war or warlordism. They are also no longer able to operate as viable economic units, in that they are incapable of providing for their citizens and have no functioning infrastructure. Although relatively few states collapse altogether, a much larger number barely function and are dangerously close to collapse

• The loss of control of a state’s territory, or loss of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within its borders.

• A government has lost legitimacy and lacks the authority to make collective decisions.

• The inability to provide basic services to citizens, such as health care and education, and to guarantee the supply of basic amenities, such as electricity and clean drinking water. Such a state may rely on substantial external support, such as development aid and non-governmental organisations to provide some basic services. The inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

Many states have been identified as failed states. Most are in sub-Saharan Africa (for example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan) but state failure has also affected Cambodia, Haiti, Syria and Yemen.


Example: Somalia

Since 2008, Somalia has topped the Fund for Peace index as the most fragile state. The government does not enjoy a monopoly over the use of force within the country or widespread legitimacy. Following the collapse of the military regime of Siad Barre in 1991, a ten-year civil war broke out between rival ethnic groups. During this conflict, warlords seized control of different parts of the country. More recently, the country has become a base for Al-Shabab, an Islamic fundamentalist group that is linked to Al-Qaeda. This group has launched attacks on neighbouring countries such as Kenya.

The provision of basic public services is limited. Children receive on average three years’ worth of education, compared with an average of 14 years in the developed world. Infant and maternal mortality is high, and average life expectancy is 55 years – almost 30 years less than in the West – all signs of poor health care provision. There is extensive foreign intervention in the country. An internationally backed government has been in place since 2012. Non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam have provided food aid in recent famines. The African Union has been providing peacekeepers since 2007, while the European Union provides naval patrols off Somalia’s coast to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa, which has disrupted trade and led to protracted hostage situations.


Example Democratic Republic of the Congo:

A good example of a failed state is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).The Democratic Republic of the Congo, informally Congo-Kinshasa, DR Congo, the DRC, the DROC, or the Congo, and formerly and also colloquially Zaire, is a country in Central Africa. It is, by area, the second largest country in Africa, and the 11th-largest in the world.

■The country is characterised by civil war, which bought about the end of President Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal dictatorship in 1996.

■ It suffers from significant ethnic and provincial divides , which were arguably exacerbated by particularly oppressive Belgian colonial rule, the legacy of which perpetuates to this day.

■ It has had a tumultuous relationship with some of its neighbours in what has historically been an unstable region (the DRC borders both Rwanda and Uganda, both of which also have recent histories of appalling human rights abuses).

■ There is deep-seated corruption, both at the highest levels of authority and in the lower echelons, with militias being prominent in the country’s history.

■ Rape has been used as a widespread weapon of war and there is massive recruitment of child soldiers.

■It has suffered from the ‘resource curse’, whereby its being very rich in many natural resources has actually left the country in a dire position. Colonial powers first exploited these resources, followed by brutal dictatorships. The country is also rife with civil war, corruption and militia groups using the black market for their own gains. Given the DRC’s lack of infrastructure and development, it has lacked the amenities it needs to benefit from harnessing these resources itself.

■ It has arguably been a victim of the West in terms of colonialism, the exploitation of its resources through black markets and Western interference (or lack thereof) in this part of Africa.



Rogue states

A rogue state is a state that is considered a pariah by the rest of the international community. Such states flout international agreements and shun membership of international organisations, or are excluded because of their unco-operative behaviour. President George W. Bush considered Iran, Iraq and North Korea to be rogue states when he declared them to be ‘an axis of evil’. Iran has been brought back into the international fold with its agreement to be subjected to inspections of its nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq in 2003 and Iraq is now part of the international community. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, however, continues to be shunned by the world.


Example: North Korea

North Korea’s autocratic Stalinist-Communist political system follows the juche principle of self- sufficiency. The country is led by Kim Jong-un, the grandson of Kim Il-sung, who was the communist leader who came to power in 1948 in the Russian-occupied north. North Korean society is tightly controlled by the Workers’ Party and the Kims are venerated as gods. Movement in and out of the country is tightly controlled. The media is heavily censored and mobile phones are banned. The North Korean leadership is paranoid about the country’s security, which is a legacy of centuries of Chinese and Japanese imperialism and the unresolved Korean War. Hostilities ended in 1953 and a truce was signed, but there has been no permanent peace treaty. North Korea feels surrounded by enemies. Japan to the east and adjoining South Korea are close allies of capitalist America, which sided with South Korea in the Korean War. Its traditional allies, Russia and China, have embraced capitalism, and Russia has democratised. North Korea feels it is the only truly communist state in the world. North Korea, therefore, is left with the classic security dilemma. It has developed a nuclear weapons programme to deter South Korea and the USA, but its posturing has led the USA and South Korea to strengthen their own military capability in the area.