Political Systems Around The World, Explained

Unless you have a political science degree or can discuss policy with the wonkiest of wonks, you might struggle a little when it comes to understanding the various types of political systems that exist in the world today. Democracy is easy enough to understand if you’ve taken a middle school civics class, but what about constitutional monarchies, oligarchies, federations and parliamentary republics?

Arguably, the hardest part of keeping all these terms straight is that they often overlap. The United States is, at once, a federation, a constitutional republic, a liberal democracy and a presidential republic. To make matters more confusing, we’re used to hearing terms like fascism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism thrown around, which are umbrella terms that sort of mean the same thing (but with slight differences) and are carried out by various forms of autocratic governments. There are many ways to describe the nuances of governance around the world, and most governments can usually fit into more than one category.

Each country enacts their government slightly differently, which creates complexity. To keep things simple, we stuck with the most common types of political systems currently in play around the world.

Common Types Of Political Systems

Absolute monarchy — Under a monarchy, a royal family or monarch presides over the affairs of the state. The king or queen’s authority is usually hereditary (though they can be elected, as is the case in Vatican City), and that person remains head of state for life or until they abdicate the throne. Absolute monarchies are rare these days; most existing monarchies are constitutional monarchies. Modern-day examples of absolute monarchies include Saudi Arabia, Oman and Vatican City.

Autocracy — An absolute monarchy would count as a form of autocracy, but you don’t necessarily need to have a royal bloodline involved. Autocracy is any form of government where one person (or a small group of people) have unregulated and undivided power over the state. This usually takes the form of monarchy or a dictatorship. It’s also important to note that most modern-day autocratic governments are autocratic in practice, but may officially operate under a different system on paper.

Constitutional monarchy — In this system, the monarch or royal family have ceremonial duties, which means they serve a symbolic role without wielding any actual power. The actual authority is vested in the executive and legislative branches of government. Examples of this system include Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain, Thailand and Japan.

Federation — A federation consists of a central government that oversees a union of states, which have a limited degree of sovereignty to govern themselves. This allows each region to exercise some amount of self-determination while benefiting from the power of the union. The United States operates this way, as does Russia, Mexico, Canada, Australia and India.

Parliamentary republic — In a parliamentary system, the leader of the state (often dubbed Prime Minister) is elected by the legislature, and the legislature is elected by the public. Examples of these types of political systems include Germany, India, Singapore and Italy.

Presidential republic — The United States was the originator of this model, and it’s since been adopted in other parts of the world, particularly throughout South America, parts of Africa and Central Asia. Unlike parliamentary republics, presidential republics have an executive head of state (usually a president) who shares power with the other branches of government but operates independently from them.

Representative democracy — Democracy is likely the most familiar-to-you types of political systems, and it means “government by and of the people.” Virtually no existing democracies are direct or pure democracies, however — this would entail citizens voting directly on legislative issues themselves. Instead, we have representative democracies, where people elect officials to represent their interests.

Semi-presidential republic — In a semi-presidential system, there are two executives: a president (who is usually elected by the people) and a prime minister. They can either share power equally, or one might have more power than the other. Having more than one executive is a means of creating more checks and balances than most other types of political systems. Senegal, Portugal, France, Ireland and Poland all operate under a form of semi-presidentialism.

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