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In order to speak scientifically about politics, it is useful to know the terminology that political scientists use.
State: in political science, "state" means what most people think of when they say "independent country": i.e., France, Italy, Russia, etc. The definition of "state" includes a people permanently living in a territory (not nomads, e.g.), over which a government exercises sovereignty. Thus, the constitutive elements of a state are a people, a territory, a government and sovereignty (some authors don't distinguish between government and sovereignty, so perhaps it would be best to speak of "a government exercising sovereign authority"). Some federations refer to their constituent parts as "states", in order to emphasize their relative importance and independence (e.g., the United States of America, the Federated States of Micronesia). Political scientists tend to use the term "state" to emphasize the governmental aspect of the country: government officials are called "state officials"; a government minister may have the title of "secretary of state", etc.
Sovereignty: full powers over a given territory. Kings and queens were once called "sovereigns" because they had full power over their subjects and lands. Political scientists do not talk of persons having sovereignty, but states. There are two kinds of sovereignty; internal sovereignty generally recognized as being a monopoly on the use of force and external sovereignty which is generally recognized as being control over ones own internationally recognized borders (illegal immigration can be seen as having a negative impact upon a states external sovereignty).
Nation a group of people sharing a common trait that creates a primary political bond. This trait is most often linguistic, but can be religious, racial, cultural, territorial, or a combination.
Nation-State: A state that is generally conceived of as the "homeland" of a given nation. For instance, France is a nation-state of French people.
Government: A system of institutions and organizations that make up the inner functions and processes of a state.
Power: The ability to convince people to do what they otherwise would not have done. This can be done through a variety of means but typically is accomplished through the following: the use of force (coercion), diplomatic means (bargaining, influence et al.) and Ideological control (setting the agenda so that opposing points of view cannot be heard).
Authority: The recognized ability to wield power.
Sovereign authority: The recognized ability to use power to exercise state sovereignty.
Legitimacy: The recognition that someone should have authority. This may or may not imply that the possessor of legitimacy also possesses authority. For instance, if a country is invaded, that country's former government might be exiled and have no real power, but still be recognized by other states as the "legitimate authority" of the country that they were exiled from.
System: A way of organizing as well as interpreting.
Federal, unitary, and confederate states
There are in general three types of states: federal, unitary, and confederate states.
A unitary state is where only one government has sovereign power. That central government can create other bodies to exercise its power, but the central government can also eliminate them. The typical example of a unitary state is France, which has a central government located in Paris.
A federal state is where sovereignty is shared between relatively sovereign state governments, and an "umbrella" government of very limited, clearly defined power. Neither state nor federal governments have the power to interfere with the other's powers. The United States of America had been an excellent example of a federal state, with a federal government located in Washington, D.C. - which was a non-state, neutral and federal territory. Some consider "The War Between the States," which eliminated the right of secession, the end of the federal era. But elements of federal government lingered until at least 1913, when the states' voice in federal government, a state-appointed senate, was lost under the 17th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
A confederate state is where sovereignty is given mostly to the regional governments, with minimal power given to the central government. Two good examples of this form of government include the original United States government under the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Confederate States of America, which believed in states' rights. In current times the best example of confederal government is the European Union.
Democratic Systems versus Authoritarian Systems
Political scientists have identified two basic types of government system: Democracies and Authoritarian Systems. At its base, a democracy is where the heads of government in a state's are chosen by a vote of the citizens of the state; their votes must be made without coercion and after voters have had the opportunity to hear the candidates. Robert Dahl, a leading scholar on democracy, has provided a framework for when a country is a democracy; these five criteria include:
Effective participation meaning that the people should have an adequate and equal opportunity to have their voices heard in the decision making process, voting equality meaning that all votes should count equally (for instance, Bill Gates's vote is no more important than yours or mine), enlightened understanding which means that the people should have adequate and equal access to information so that they can make the best possible decision, control of the agenda meaning only the people should be able to decide what decisions are debated and voted upon and, finally, the system must be inclusive meaning that all adults in the society, unless incapable, should be authorized to participate in the political process and not precluded therefrom. (Adopted from Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics pg 108-118 and 129-131)
Authoritarian systems are the antithesis of democracy. As opposed to the democratic principles of rule by the people, authoritarian systems are lead by either an individual or a small group of individuals. There are dozens of authoritarian systems, but all share the general characteristic of exclusiveness, which means keeping the vast majority of people out of policy and decision-making processes. Often a government will display multiple forms of authoritarian rule, a short list of these different forms is as follows:
Kleptocracy: A government lead by a leader whose sole objective is to use the state to enrich himself (ex. Saddam Hussein)
Totalitarianism: An authoritarian government where the leader(s) has an all pervasive presence, usually established through secret police agencies, mass repression and surveillance. Another element of totalitarianism is the lack of independent civil society organizations; those that may exist are extensions of the state. Examples of totalitarianism include the USSR (esp. under Stalin), Nazi Germany and North Korea.
Military Junta: A government ran entirely by a group of military officers, this system was common found in South and Central America and can include elements of both totalitarianism and kleptocracy. Myanmar (Burma) is run by a military junta.
Monarchy: The "classical" western authoritarian regime, composed of a single leader whose legitimacy is often religious or tribal. The main difference between this and other authoritarian regimes is the concept of hereditary rule.
Under speculation are anarchic and libertarian systems of government, which are below democracies in terms of government power, with some having no government at all. However, due to lack of real world examples (anarchic Somalia an obvious exception) these are usually discounted.
Presidential Systems, Parliamentary Systems, and Mixed Systems
As we have seen, democratic systems have elected officials. Most democratic states have many elected officials, who share power in predetermined ways. The two most popular models for sharing power amongst elected officials is the Presidential System and the Parliamentary System.
The Parliamentary System is the most popular model. In this system, a body of many representatives is elected by voters. This body might be called a House of Commons, a national assembly, a legislative assembly, a lower house, or any number of other names (for this discussion, we shall refer to it as a Legislature). Each member of the Legislature has one equal vote. The Legislature has the power to pass legislation, which has the force of law. To become law, the proposed law must receive the approval of the majority of the Legislature.
Usually at its first meeting after an election of new members, the Legislature chooses from amongst its membership an Executive body, i.e., the officials in charge of making sure that legislation is enforced. This body is usually called a cabinet, but is sometimes called a Council of Ministers. Each member of the cabinet usually has a specific portfolio, over which he/she is responsible: finances, foreign policy, defence, agriculture, transport, etc. The chairman of the cabinet is the most powerful person in a Parliamentary system, and is usually given the title of Prime Minister (aka., "chancellor", "premier", or "first minister").
The Legislature also chooses the "President" of the state, who is usually a ceremonial figurehead for the state (called the head of state). Sometimes, the President is given the duty of settling deadlocks in the Legislature over the choice of members of the Cabinet. (Some states maintain a king or queen as their ceremonial head of state. Such states are called "constitutional monarchies", while systems with presidents are called "republics". There is little difference between these two types of states in practice).
Most members of the Legislature are part of a faction within the body that wishes to pursue a common political agenda. This is called a political party. If one political party constitutes a majority of the members of a Legislature, then that party can dictate who gets chosen for the Cabinet and what legislation gets approval. This is called majority government. The leader of the majority party automatically becomes Prime Minister, and as long as he/she maintains the confidence of his/her party, he/she can dictate who is in the cabinet and what legislation gets passed. This makes the Prime Minister a very power official. The Prime Minister can even decide to dissolve the Legislature and call a new election.
Parliamentary systems are prevalent in western Europe, as well as the former colonies of Great Britain.
The Presidential system was first developed by the framers of the United States Constitution in the 1780s. The framers disapproved of the way in which the Prime Minister of Parliamentary systems could accumulate so much power. They therefore developed a system designed to spread power more evenly over many different elected officials. This is known as the separation of powers.
In a typical presidential system, the president is not purely symbolic. Not only is the President the head of state, but is also in charge of naming the members of the cabinet (called "administration" in the United States). The President also has some powers specifically mandated by the constitution, particularly in foreign policy and defence. The president is not chosen by the legislature, but directly elected by the voters. The President is not allowed to be a member of the legislature.
The legislature (or congress in the United States), the leader of the majority party does not automatically become the Prime Minister. In fact, in many presidential systems, the position of Prime Minister does not exist; the President instead chairs the cabinet. The legislature holds elections at fixed intervals (usually every four years), instead of being dissolved by a Prime Minister. Because the majority party of the legislature does not control the executive, political parties play a less important role in a Presidential system, and members of the same party may often vote differently in the legislature.
The Presidential system is used in the United States and states strongly influenced by the United States, such as Mexico.
Mixed systems incorporate attributes of the Parliamentary system and Presidential System. Often, these mixes result in a directly elected President with powers equivalent to a Prime Minister. For instance, in France, the President is directly elected by the people every five years. The President of France may dissolve the National Assembly. If the President has the following of a majority of the National Assembly, then he may appoint the Cabinet; if he does not have the following of the National Assembly, then he may only appoint members of the Cabinet who are responsible for foreign policy and defence.
Mixed systems have proven popular amongst relatively new democracies, such as Russia, the Ukraine, and Iraq, since they give a lot of power to the President.
Proportional Representation, Single-Member Plurality, and Mixed Representation
In a proportional representation system, parties are allotted seats in the legislature based on the percentage of the votes that they receive in the polls. Each voter will select a party instead of an individual candidate, after which parties will be assigned seats according to percentages. In many countries there is a threshold that a party needs to pass before getting a seat (generally between 2 - 5 percent). The seats that would have gone to parties receiving under this threshold are divided up by the parties that passed the threshold. Some countries using proportional representation include Israel, Italy, and Iraq.
In a single-member plurality system, members are elected to the legislature from electoral districts. Only one member can be elected from each district. The member who is elected is the person who receives the most votes in that district, even if he does not receive a majority of the vote. Some countries that use this system are the United States and Britain.
In a mixed representation system, some members are elected from electoral districts after receiving a plurality of the vote, while the rest of the seats in the legislature are assigned according to proportional representation. Voters in these countries generally vote for a candidate and a party. Countries employing mixed systems include Russia and Mexico.
A single-member system favors major parties, and will generally allows for only two or three healthy major parties. In the US, for example, only Democrats or Republicans typically win seats; in Great Britain, only the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties win seats. This forces the parties to moderate to gain votes and may make compromise in government easier.
A proportional system allows smaller parties to gain seats. This will result in many views represented in the legislature but may make the government less stable. In addition, it may be difficult to employ in a big country because the votes of the entire nation need to be pooled and then divided. A recount in a close election would therefore be impractical.