Governments are controlled by a higher power

Forms of government: monarchy, dictatorship & democracy

learning goals

At the bottom of this page you can:


  1. Describe the difference between legislative, executive and judicial branches and the meaning of this distinction.
  2. List the three main forms of government and explain their similarities and differences.
  3. understand the characteristics of direct and indirect democracy.

Politics make rules

In politics we are mainly concerned with regulate. We are less interested in rules that exist at home or at school, but rather with rules that apply to society as a whole.

Under the society we understand groups of people who live in a certain demarcated area or space. Most societies nowadays are organized in states, for example Switzerland.

A state's society is characterized by the fact that it is too big for everyone to know each other. Although people are very different within a society, people still feel connected in some way.

Separation of powers

In politics we mainly deal with rules that apply within a whole state. These rules are called laws. In the state it is clearly regulated who can draft and change laws, who executes the laws and who decides whether a law has been observed or not. We use specific technical terms for these groups of people, the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

legislative branch: The group of people who are allowed to make rules is called the legislature in politics.
executive: Persons who are entrusted with the execution of rules are the executive or law-enforcement authority.
Judiciary: The group of people who decide whether the rules have been adhered to and, if necessary, punish rule violations.

The legislative branch Violence in a state democratic state is generally dated houses of Parliament perceived. In Switzerland this is the National Council and the Council of States. In addition to passing laws, the main task of parliament is to decide on the finances of the state. So Parliament decides how much money can be spent on individual tasks.
The executive Violence in modern states is controlled by the government accepted. In most countries this is the case President / the president (e.g. USA, France) or a Prime minister / prime minister (e.g. Great Britain, Greece). In addition, the so-called minister also to the government. They assume responsibility for various sub-tasks in the state. For example, in almost all countries there is a ministry for education that is responsible for the schools in the country. Switzerland has a slightly different system because we don't know any presidents or prime ministers. In our country, the seven federal councilors jointly assume executive power. At the same time, the Federal Councilors are also heads of the seven different ministries that we have Departments to be named. Swiss federal councilors are, so to speak, both presidents and ministers at the same time.
With the Judiciary Violence means the courts in a country. The Judge those who work in the courts decide whether the applicable laws have been broken and whether a person or organization must be punished if this is the case.

Are these three Violence independently of one another, one also speaks of Separation of powers. This means that no person can influence all three powers at the same time. For example, a president (executive) may not dictate how a judge (judiciary) should judge. Through this separation of powers, the freedom and equality which guarantees persons in one state, since no person can thereby exercise arbitrary power over another.

Forms of government

There are just over 200 countries on earth today and each one differs in the way rules are set and changed, whether these rules apply to everyone and who decides whether a rule has been violated. We often speak of different ones in this context Forms of government.
We can roughly distinguish three different forms of government monarchy, the dictatorship and the democracy. Each of these types can be divided into subgroups, which differ slightly. These three forms of government are presented below.
We pay special attention to the differences in legislation (legislative), enforcement (executive) and jurisdiction (judiciary).

The three classic forms of government

monarchy: All three powers are exercised by only one person (queen / king). Power in the state is mostly inherited.
dictatorship: An individual ruling person, the dictator, or a ruling group of persons (e.g. party, military junta, family) has unlimited political power in the state. Power is seized by force and held by force.
democracy: Form of government with a constitution that guarantees general personal and political rights, with fair elections and independent courts. It is characterized by the separation of powers.

The monarchy

In a monarchy, basically one person has the power to decide on rules. The queen or the king, more rarely an empress or an emperor, unites the legislature, executive and judiciary in just one person. So it is a single rule. As a rule, power is inherited in a monarchy. This means that after the monarch's death, one of his daughters or sons automatically receives the title of queen or king. Often the claim to power to the throne is legitimized by the fact that the family has been chosen by a higher power to lead the country.

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In the past, almost all countries were organized as a monarchy. Nowadays there are only a few absolute monarchies left as described above. Some examples of Absolute monarchies are:

  • Brunei
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Swaziland

In addition, the Vatican can also be counted among the absolute monarchies. However, with the difference that the monarch (the pope) is elected. So it's a Absolute elective monarchy.

Constitutional monarchy

In most modern monarchies, the power of queens and kings is curtailed by transferring some of the power to the government. In this case, the monarch's absolute power is limited by certain rules. These rules are laid down in the central legal document - the constitution. Constitutions are also called constitutions, which is why we speak of constitutional monarchies. The powers of the state are thereby divided between the monarch and a government. Examples are:

  • Bahrain
  • Morocco
  • Jordan

Parliamentary monarchy

In contrast to the constitutional monarchy, the monarch in a parliamentary monarchy has only very little influence. In most cases, the monarchy is only adhered to based on old tradition. The power in the state has a parliament (legislature) elected by the people, which determines the government (executive). So the countries listed below are in themselves democracies. Examples are:

  • Great Britain
  • Sweden
  • Japan
  • Liechtenstein

The dictatorship

Dictatorships are far more common than absolute monarchies. As in absolute monarchy, in a dictatorship a single person (the dictator) or a small group of people has sole rule in a country. The legislative, executive and judicial branches are therefore limited to a few people, who thus have almost unlimited political power. This also means that in a dictatorship the laws can be changed at will by the rulers. The following features are often present in dictatorships:

  • Human and civil rights are violated
  • Election results are falsified
  • The press is ruled by the dictator
  • The people are being terrorized by the police and the military.

In contrast to the monarchy, a dictator often comes to power through violence. In many cases, a senior military member uses the army to overthrow the government and come to power himself. Sometimes, however, a democratically elected president becomes a dictator who no longer relinquishes power. There are different types of dictatorships.

The military dictatorship Power rests with a military leader and the officers. The army is also used to maintain power and crush revolts. Examples:

  • Chile (1973-1990)
  • Burma (1999 - 2012)

The party dictatorship Power rests with the only party allowed in the state. All important positions in the state are occupied by members of the party. Examples:

The theocracy Power rests with a religious group. The religious leaders each assume the role of dictator. Examples:

  • Iran
  • Afghanistan (1989 - 2009)

The democracy

The word democracy comes from ancient Greek and means "rule of the people". In contrast to the other forms of government, the people, i.e. the inhabitants of a country, have the opportunity to exert significant influence on politics. Democracy is also the only form of government in which rules, once set, also apply to those people who set the rules. This is an important difference from the other forms of government discussed here. In dictatorships and absolute monarchies, it is customary for the laws to apply to everyone except those who run the country.

There are different democracies in the world, some of which differ greatly. But they all have three principles in common: freedom, control and equality.

Characteristics of a democracy

freedom: Diversity of opinion is expressly desired, which is guaranteed, among other things, by freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. A clear legal system (constitution and laws) is observed.
control: The three powers are clearly separated. The result of free elections is accepted, which allows the people to exercise control over the government.
equality: All citizens, including presidents, judges or police officers, etc., are equal before the law and have the same rights and obligations.

Forms of democracy

We can roughly distinguish three different forms of democracy: indirect democracy, semi-direct democracy and direct democracy. Within these forms, there are again some major differences. To keep it simple, however, it is certainly helpful to focus on these three forms first.

Indirect democracy
The people elect the deputies (legislative) which then elect the government (executive). The MPs decide independently on laws and the constitution. This form of democracy is referred to as indirect because the people can only make a detour through the law: the members of the parliament are elected by the people, who then represent their voters in parliament when it comes to decisions on laws and the constitution. Examples of this form are:

  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • Italy
  • Spain

The semi-direct democracy
As with indirect democracy, the people elect the MPs (legislature), which then elect the government (executive). Both the legislature and the executive can influence laws and the constitution. In Switzerland, for example, the people elect the legislature - the parliament - in the form of the National Council and the Council of States. These MPs represent their voters and their concerns in legislation and elect the executive, i.e. the Federal Council, for the people. In addition, the people can also directly determine laws and vote on constitutional changes. This is possible through initiatives and referenda. Examples of semi-direct democracies are:

The direct democracy
This kind of democracy does not actually exist in its pure form at the state level. However, two Swiss cantons, Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden, belong to this form. In direct democracy, the people elect members of parliament and government directly and also decide on laws and the constitution. The cantonal parliaments only have an advisory role. They also prepare the votes and elections. The examples:

  • Appenzell Innerrhoden
  • Glarus

Finally, let yourself go through what you have read and try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the three powers in a state?
  • When do we speak of separation of powers?
  • Why is the separation of powers important?
  • What forms of government do you know? What are their differences and similarities?
  • What different forms of democracy do you know? What are their similarities and differences?