Types of government: autocracy democracy & oligarchy

Written by david james
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Types of government: autocracy democracy & oligarchy
Legitimate governments are those that are elected by the people. (Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Democracy, autocracy and communism are the main types of governments currently being employed in the vast majority of countries around the world, though there have been many other types throughout history, including oligarchies, monarchies, theocracies and others. What defines each system is where the power lies: either with the rulers or the people they rule, who manage change through fair, legitimate elections.


Democracy is a very broad term that means "rule by the people," which implies that all the people gather to make the decisions that affect them. This is not possible in the modern world, so in most democratic countries, including the United States, representatives elected by the people make the rules. There are many different forms of government that operate in democratic countries, such as democratic republics, constitutional monarchies, parliamentary monarchies and others, but these governments get their power and legitimacy from the people. These types of governments have a leader, such as a president or prime minister, who make rules in assemblies, such as the House of Representatives, that are interpreted and applied through a system of courts. The key to a democracy is that if the people are unhappy with their government, they can elect another one.


An autocracy is defined as "rule by oneself," as in a dictator who, through the use of a party or the military, wants to hold absolute power of the state. Autocrats can be elected or assume power through military coups. It is common that once elected, autocrats will imprison or murder opponents and silence all forms of democracy while either upholding the facade of democracy through sham elections and different political parties or outlawing both. Hitler was an elected autocrat who, in 12 short years, turned Germany into a brutal dictatorship controlled by fear. Augusto Pinochet was the autocratic Chilean ruler who overthrew a democratically elected government to instil a military dictatorship.


Oligarchy, in contrast to democracy, is "rule by the few." These "few" are rich, powerful or both, and are usually nobles, aristocrats, military groups or any distinguished group that rules tyrannically with their own interests at heart. Although there are no governments today that would call themselves an oligarchy, by definition, the apartheid-era government in South Africa could be seen as an example. This rules was based on race, where the white 20 per cent of the country ruled the black majority through force and control of the economy. Those who are not part of the ruling party have little, if any, political voice.


Communism has much in common with both autocracies and oligarchies, such as rule by a few who control economic forces through oppressive means. The difference with communism is that, in theory, it does have the interests of the people in mind, in that it aims to make all citizens equal. Many communist regimes are called Democratic Republics, People's Republics or similar euphemisms, but are neither republics nor democratic, as the people can't vote and there are no political powers or most of the freedoms associated with either.

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