Classification of Government: Various Forms of Government

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This article explains and describes the organization and various ways of classifying systems or forms of government.

The essence of this article is to identify the various forms or systems of government and explain them. To effectively achieve this, the basic components of government, which distinguish government from other associations, as well as the roles generated for government to perform, are discussed in my previous post: What is Government?

Classifications of Government: Various Forms of Government

It is well established that modern states have two primary purposes: the maintenance of order and the promotion of citizens' welfare within the context stipulated by national and international prescriptions. In order to perform these basic and other important functions, the government, which is the institution and one of the essential characteristics of the state, employs its instrumentalities. This is because the state is an abstract construct whose impact is only felt through an established government.

There are structures established to perform the government's basic responsibilities of rule-making or law-making, rule application (involving implementation of policies and programs and enforcement of rules and regulations), and rule adjudication (involving interpretation of laws and legal settlement of disputes). These structures are known as arms, branches, or organs of government.

The way institutional arrangements are organized varies across countries and political systems. One of the variations is determined by the extent to which the organs are separated from one another. In other words, the application of the doctrine of separation of powers affects the organization and performance of government.

Classifications of Government

Many political thinkers and theorists have made numerous attempts to present the best model or typology for classifying systems or forms of government. In ancient times, Plato, Aristotle, and the Romans (particularly Polybius and Cicero) made significant contributions in this regard.

For the sake of clarification, classification of government is used here to mean forms of government. The various forms of government—those that existed in the past and those that still exist—are classified on the basis of the following criteria:

(1) The size of the ruling class and degree of public involvement:

  • Polity (democracy), Aristocracy, and Monarchy (good forms).
  • Democracy (mobocracy), Tyranny (perverted forms), Oligarchy, and

(2) Patterns of power distribution:

  • Unitary
  • Federal
  • Confederal

(3) Institutional structure and relationships among major organs:

  • Limited Presidential System of Government
  • Parliamentary or Cabinet Form of Government
  • Dual Executive or Mixed Government

(4) State ideological thrust:

  • Capitalism
  • Socialism
  • Communism

(5) Elite behavior and the structure of society:

  • Consociational Democracy
  • Centrifugal Democracy

(6) Other forms of government:

  • Fascism
  • Feudalism
  • Theocracy
  • Totalitarianism
  • Colonialism
  • Militarism

Classification of Systems of Government

1. Earliest Classification Scheme

One of the earliest but still popular classificatory schemes was that developed by Aristotle. Based on the two criteria of rulership—the relative number of citizens entitled to rule and whether the ruler is acting in their own selfish interests or in the common interest—he formulated a six-fold classification as shown in the picture below. Which has remained highly influential over the years.

The classification scheme presented above is self-expanding. Where only one citizen rules in the interest of all citizens in the political system. The system is a monarchy. Examples can be found in the various African kingdoms, empires, and emirates, and contemporary examples exist in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Swaziland. If the king rules for his own selfish interests, the system of rule is tyranical, as was the case in self-styled Emperor Bedel Bokassa's Central African empire.

Next, where only a few citizens rule in the interest of all, there is aristocracy. If they rule for themselves, there is oligarchy. In a sense, most political systems are oligarchial because only a few people actually rule. This is the claim of Robert Michael's famous 'Iron Law of Oligarchy', which states that wherever there is organization, there is oligarchy.

Finally, if many citizens rule, as is said to have been the case in the Greek city-states, there is a polity if they rule in the interest of all, and a democracy if they rule for themselves. I am sure you are familiar with the commonplace definition of democracy as 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people'.

2. Patterns of Power Sharing and Distribution

The classification of a system of government could also be based on the nature of the intergovernmental relationship between the central or national government and other component units of government. In other words, governments are classified on the basis of the extent to which governmental powers are decentralized or centralized.

Using the varying degrees of centralization and decentralization, we have three forms of government, namely, unitary, federal, and confederal. These various forms are discussed below.

• Unitary

A unitary form of government is one in which all legislative and executive authority is vested in a single legislature and a single government. It has also been described as one in which the habitual exercise of supreme legislative authority is carried out by one central power. There is no constitutional division of powers between the central and the component units—regions or states.

In a unitary government, the units are only deconcentrated bodies like local administrative units or provincial or divisional units that do not have legal existence, no power over taxation, and, more importantly, they exist at the mercy of the central or national government.

Some of the reasons why some countries and states adopt the unitary system of government include the homogeneity of the population, the small geographical size, and the people's ability and willingness to do away with their differences for common purposes. Examples of countries with a unitary government include Ghana, Britain, France, and Kenya.


This is the state of being a confederation. It is a form of government involving the union of states with a common recognized authority in certain matters affecting the whole, such as external relations. In other words, confederalism denotes a group of states that are allied together to form a political unit in which they keep most of their independence but act together for purposes that include defense in times of war.

A confederate country usually has a weak center where the component units retain their sovereignty, and it is prone to secession. The reasons for a confederal system may be to foster cooperation—social, political, and economic—among the confederating states; to give more autonomy to the component units vis-à-vis the central or national government; to even develop, to mention just a few.

Examples include confederation in Canada in 1867; the union of the original 13 states of the United States under the Articles of Confederation from 1781 to 1789; and the German confederation from 1815 to 1816.

Although confederalism, like federalism, is a form of government involving the union of states with a commonly recognized authority in certain matters, they differ in some respects. Confederalism differs from federalism in the sense that the former is a league of sovereign states, while the latter leads to the emergence of a new state.

Component units where federal government is practiced give up their sovereignty in favor of the new state, while their counterparts with confederal government retain their sovereignty. The implication of this is that confederal governments are less stable and weaker than federalism.

  • Federalism

Generally, a federal system involves the sharing of political power among various component units of any state or country, where the central government and regional or local governments are given varying powers by the constitution, and each of them has the power to have its own laws without relying on others. It is a system of government in which several states or regions defer some powers, e.g., in foreign affairs, to a central government while retaining a limited measure of self-government.

Federalism can be defined as a constitutional arrangement of division of power between two levels of government in such a way that the two levels of government are independent and coordinate. The ideal feature of federalism is the federal principle.

Some of the factors that necessitate the establishment of federations by federating units include, but are not limited to, a general fear of insecurity, heterogeneity of population, geographical contiguity, common colonial heritage, even development, and a desire for common defense and military security, among others.

The major weakness of this form of government is that it can lead to over-centralization of federal or national government to the disadvantage of other component units. Ideally, none of the levels of government is superior to the other. Some of the examples of countries practicing the federal system include Nigeria (where we presently have a federal government, 36 state governments, 774 local governments, and federal capital territory as the federating units), the United States of America, Brazil, India, Germany, and so on.

3. Institutional Structure and Relationships among Major Organs of Government

With the application of this criterion in respect of institutional structure within the executive branch of government, we have three dominant forms of government. These are:

• Limited Presidential Government

This is the most common form of government in the world today. To be specific, in most new democracies in Africa, this form of government is prominent. It is a form of government that involves a large concentration of powers in the president, most especially in Republican states. The president is both the head of state and the head of government.

Specifically, the president is usually the chief executive officer of the government, the leader of the executive branch, and the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president has the power to make treaties with other states with the advice and consent of two-thirds of the legislature. The president also appoints, with legislative consent, diplomatic representatives, Supreme Court judges, and many other officials.

• Parliamentary or Cabinet form of government

This is a type of government (also known as Westminster government) where there is a formal ceremonial head of state (may be president, governor-general, monarch, king, or queen) and a prime minister, who, as the head of government, possesses real executive powers.

This form of government is believed to have originated in Britain, the mother of parliament. The power is assumed to be concentrated in the cabinet that is headed by the prime minister.

• Dual executive or mixed government

This form of government is similar to the one being practiced in a parliamentary system. This is because it has two separate executives but differs in the sense that it combines some elements of the US presidential and British executive models. The dual executive form of government is predominant in a minority of liberal and emergent democracies.

France is the most notable example of this type of government. The adoption of this system was traced to the history of political instability in France. Other countries with dual executives, though with significant differences when compared with the model in France, include Morocco, Lebanon, Finland, Sri Lanka, and Portugal.

The French dual executive government combines elements of the States and British constitutions, which manifest in the establishment of the office of the President and that of the Prime Minister. The aim is to promote a strong executive and greater party discipline, as well as the stability of the polity.

Under this model in France, the constitution gives the President (who is elected by an electoral vote for a seven-year term) considerable powers, including the appointment of the Prime Minister (who is responsible to the National Assembly), control of the Armed Forces, the right to preside over cabinet and defense council powers to negotiate international treaties, appoint ambassadors, and the right to dissolve the Assembly once a year, as well as countersign legislation approved by the Assembly, among others.

The Prime Minister and his council of ministers exercise the ultimate authority in the conduct of day-to-day government business, which largely excludes the elected President.

3. State Ideological Thrust

The type of ideology that underpins the state can also be used to classify the forms of government. Ideology is generally meant to denote a body of ideas that reflect the beliefs and interests of a particular nation-state or political system. Using this criterion, we have capitalism, socialism, and communism.

• Capitalism

Capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals and business firms own the means of and carry on the production and exchange of goods and services through a complex network of prices and markets. Simply put, it is an economic and political ideology that permits private individuals and groups to own means of production, distribution, and exchange.

Although rooted in ancient times, capitalism is primarily European in its origins; it evolved through a number of stages, reaching its peak in the 19th century. From Europe, and especially from England, capitalism spread throughout the world, largely unchallenged as the dominant economic and social system until World War I (1914–1918) ushered in modern communism (or Marxism) as a vigorous and hostile competing system.

It should be made clear that in political terms, capitalism promotes the ideas of freedom, liberty, and democracy because it allows a multi-party political system. Although there is no pure capitalist state, the United States of America, Canada, Germany, and Japan are good examples of countries operating this form of government. Britain, as a welfare state, is said to be operating a system that is midway between capitalism and socialism.

• Socialism

Socialism may be defined as an economic and social system under which essential industries and social services are publicly and cooperatively owned and democratically controlled with a view to equal opportunity and equal benefit for all. The term socialism also refers to the doctrine behind this system and the political movement inspired by it.

Broadly speaking, socialism is a political and economic system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange within the state are collectively owned and controlled by the state for the benefit of the people.

The terms 'socialism' and 'communism' were once used interchangeably. Communism, however, came to designate those theories and movements that advocated the abolition of capitalism and all private profit by means of violent revolution if necessary. This doctrine was originally put forth by German theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Vladimir Lenin, who headed the Soviet government after the Russian Revolution of 1917, defined a socialist society as one in which the workers, free from capitalist exploitation, receive the full product of their labor. Most socialists denied the claim of Communists to have achieved socialism in the Soviet Union. They regarded the Soviet government as an authoritarian tyranny.

The modern socialist movement, as distinguished from communism, had its origins largely in the late 19th century. The worsening condition of the proletariat, or workers, in Western Europe had not brought about the class war predicted by Marx. Many socialist thinkers began to doubt the necessity of revolution and to revise other basic tenets of Marxism. They declared that socialism could best be attained by reformist, parliamentary, and evolutionary methods, including the support of the middle class.

Prior to the disintegration of the defunct Soviet Union, many socialist governments had emerged at different times, starting with the former Soviet Union in 1917—the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. Others included Albania in 1944, North Vietnam in 1948, North Korea (1948), China (1949), Cuba (1959), Cambodia (1975), and Laos (1975). It is worth mentioning that there are remnants of socialist states in Cuba, Vietnam, and Tanzania, for example.

• Communism

Communism is a theory and system of social and political organization that was a major force in world politics for much of the 20th century. As a political movement, communism sought to overthrow capitalism through a workers' revolution and establish a system in which property is owned by the community as a whole rather than by individuals.

Broadly, communism refers to the philosophy or system of political and social organization in which the state or the community as a whole, governed by an elite party, controls production, labor, and distribution and, largely, the social and cultural life and thought of the people. It is an advanced stage of socialism that I have explained above.

Theoretically, communism would create a classless society of abundance and freedom, in which all people enjoy equal social and economic status. In practice, communist regimes have taken the form of coercive, authoritarian governments that cared little for the plight of the working class and sought above all else to preserve their own hold on power.

There were communist parties aspiring to form communist governments before and after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In the majority of the post-Soviet states—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, and Ukraine—the former republic-level communist parties chose to hold onto their communist terminology, heraldry, and aspirations after independence. These parties became known as neo-communist parties.

4. Elite Behavior and the Structure of Society

In what is similar to Aristotle's typology, Arend Lijphart also classified government vis-à-vis elite behavior and the structure of society. According to Lijphart, elite behavior can be coalescent and adversarial, while the structure of society can be homogeneous or heterogeneous.

Using these criteria, he came up with a consociational democracy, that is, an arrangement that brings different elite groups from different types of society together; de-politicized democracy, which is based on agreement on certain basic things; centripetal democracy, in which the center will constitute a pool, thereby pooling all groups together; and centrifugal democracy, in which different individual groups will like to pool the center to themselves.

5. Other Forms Of Government

Autocracy, fascism, totalitarianism, etc. are not really forms of government but styles of governance. Only a thin line separates one from the other, as they run into each other like diagonal lines on a marble cake. In other words, a fascist state is an autocratic state as well as a dictatorial state and more or less totalitarian too. Which name applies depends on the features one chooses to emphasize or consider dominant.

These are forms of government that are based on other criteria than those highlighted above. They include:

• Fascism

This is a form of government that is based on a movement, ideology, or attitude that favors dictatorial government, centralized control of private enterprise, repression of all opposition, the use of terror, a state monopoly of means of violence, and extreme nationalism. It is a type of government in which the rulers assume a sovereign authority that dominates all forces in society in the absence of individualism or democracy and, at the same time, is in constant contact with the masses.

Examples of fascist governments include Italy under Benito Mussolini in 1922, Germany under Adolf Hitler in 1930, and Argentina in 1943.

• Feudalism

Feudalism is a form of government that is based on the ownership of land. In other words, it is a government whereby political power is derived from control over land, which is the land tenure system. It existed among members of the nobility in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages.

• Theocracy

The word 'theocracy' originated from the Greek word theokratia, translated to mean "government by a god." Thus, a theocratic government is one in which God is regarded as the sole sovereign and the laws of the realm are seen as divine commands. By extension, a theocracy is a country in which control is in the hands of the clergy.

Later attempts to found theocratic societies were made by the French theologian John Calvin and the English soldier-statesman Oliver Cromwell. The caliphate, in Muslim communities, was a theocracy. The rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran is an example of a theocratic government in contemporary times.

• Autocracy

Autocracy means unquestionable rule by the authority of one person or group of persons. An autocratic leader does not seek the opinion of the people in making a policy, but once the policy is declared, the government will use brute force to terrorize a large section of the population into agreeing with the measures promulgated.

• Tyranny

A tyrannical government is one spearheaded by a tyrant. A tyrant is an absolute ruler, unrestrained by law or constitution. Most of his powers are exercised arbitrarily and in a brutal or oppressive manner. A tyrannical government uses force or the threat of force to compel obedience or suppress public opinion and citizens' rights.

• Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is a system of government and ideology in which all social, political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual activities are subordinated to the purposes of the rulers of a state. It is a higher form of despotism, absolutism, and tyranny.

In modern totalitarianism, people are made utterly dependent on the wishes and whims of a political party and its leaders. Also, as older autocracies were ruled by monarchs or other titled aristocrats who were governed by a principle such as divine rights, the modern totalitarian state is ruled by a leader, or dictator, who controls a political party.

Examples of countries whose governments are usually characterized as totalitarian are Germany, under the National Socialism of Adolf Hitler; the defunct USSR, particularly under Joseph Stalin; and the People's Republic of China, under the Communist rule of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung).

Other governments have also been called totalitarian, for example, those of North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

• Colonialism

As earlier discussed, a colonial government exists where one country assumes political control over another. This colonial government is usually achieved through aggressive, often military, actions. Most of the countries in Africa were under one colonial government or another before they were granted independence. Examples of countries that were not colonized in Africa include Egypt, Ethiopia, and Liberia.

• Militarism

Militarism denotes a high level of influence by military personnel and ideals on the government or policies of a country or state. Thus, military government is the government of the armed forces, which derives its powers not from the people but from barrels of guns. A military government usually controls the citizens of a country through edicts, decrees, and other martial laws.

The reigns of military rulers and military governments started in Nigeria on January 15, 1966, when General Aguiyi Ironsi toppled the civilian administration led by Tafawa Balewa via a military coup. Other military governments in Nigeria include Yakubu Gowon (July 29, 1966–1975); Muritala Ramat Mohammed (1975–February 13, 1976); Olusegun Obasanjo-led military government (1976–October 1, 1979); Mohamadu Buhari-led military government (December 31, 1983–August 27, 1985); Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (1985–August 27, 1993); Sani Abacha (November 1993–June 8, 1998); and Abdulsalam Abubakar (1998–May 29, 1999).

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