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This article concentrates on the several forms of government of real states and countries that have been termed republic, for all other uses see: republic (disambiguation)

In a broad definition a republic is a state whose political organization rests on the principle that the citizens or electorate constitute the ultimate root of legitimacy and sovereignty. Several definitions, including that of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, stress the importance of autonomy and the rule of law as part of the requirements for a Republic.[1]

The detailed organization of republics' governments can vary widely. The first section of this article gives an overview of the distinctions that characterise different types of non-fictional republics.

The second section of the article gives short profiles of some of the most influential republics, by way of illustration. A more comprehensive List of republics appears in a separate article.

The third section is about how republics are approached as state organisations in political science: in political theory and political science, the term "republic" is generally applied to a state where the government's political power depends solely on the consent, however nominal, of the people governed.


Characteristics of republics

Heads of state

In most modern republics the head of state is termed president. Other titles that have been used are consul, doge, knyazs, archon and many others. In republics that are also democracies the head of state is appointed as the result of an election. This election can be indirect: a council of some sort is elected by the people, and this council then elects the head of state. In these kinds of republics the usual term for a president is in the range of four to six years. In some countries the constitution limits the number of terms the same person can be elected as president.

If the head of state of a republic is at the same time the head of government, this is called a presidential system (example: United States). In Semi-presidential systems the head of state is not the same person as the head of government, in that case he is usually termed prime minister or premier. Depending on whether the president has any specific tasks (for example, advisory role in the formation of a government after an election) this can leave the president with little more than a ceremonial function. The Prime Minister is responsible for managing the policies and the central government. Depending on the rules for appointing the president and the leader of the government, it is possible for some of these countries to have a situation where the president and the prime minister have opposing political convictions: in France, when the members of the ruling cabinet and the president come from opposing political factions, this situation is called cohabitation. In countries such as Germany and India, however, the president needs to be strictly non-partisan.

In some countries, like Switzerland and San Marino, the head of state is not a single person but a committee (council) of several persons holding that office. The Roman Republic had two consuls, appointed for a year by the senate. During the year of their consulship each consul would in turn be head of state for a month at a time, thus alternating the office of consul maior (the consul in power) and of consul suffectus (not-ruling consul, however with some supervision on the work of the consul maior) for their joint term.

Republics can be led by a head of state that has many of the characteristics of a monarch: not only do some republics install a president for life, and invest such president with powers beyond what is usual in a representative democracy, examples such as the post-1970 Syrian Arab Republic show that such a presidency can apparently be made hereditary. Historians disagree when the Roman Republic turned into Imperial Rome: the reason is that the first Emperors were given their head of state powers gradually in a government system that in appearance did not originally much differ from the Roman Republic[2].

Similarly, if taking the broad definition of republic above ("In a broad definition a republic is a state or country that is led by people that don't base their political power on any principle beyond the control of the people living in that state or country."), countries usually qualified as monarchies can have many traits of a republic in terms of form of government. The political power of monarchs can be non-existent, limited to a purely ceremonial function or the "control of the people" can be exerted to the extent that they appear to have the power to have their monarch replaced by another one[3].

The often assumed "mutual exclusiveness" of monarchies and republics as forms of government[4] is thus not to be taken too literally, and largely depends on circumstances:

  • Autocrats might try to give themselves a democratic tenure by calling themselves president (or princeps or princeps senatus in the case of Ancient Rome), and the form of government of their country "republic", instead of using a monarchic based terminology[5].
  • For full-fledged representative democracies ultimately it generally does not make all that much difference whether the head of state is a monarch or a president, nor, in fact, whether these countries call themselves a monarchy or a republic. Other factors, for instance, religious matters (see next section) can often make a greater distinguishing mark when comparing the forms of government of actual countries.

For this reason, in political science the several definitions of "republic", which in such a context invariably indicate an "ideal" form of government, do not always exclude monarchy: the evolution of such definitions of "republic" in a context of political philosophy is treated in republicanism. However, such theoretical approaches appear to have had no real influence on the everyday use (that is: apart from a scholar or "insider" context) of the terminology regarding republics and monarchies[6].

The least that can be said is that Anti-Monarchism, the opposition to monarchy as such, did not always play a critical role in the creation and/or management of republics. For some republics, not choosing a monarch as head of state, could as well be a practical rather than an ideological consideration. For example where there was no monarchial candidate readily available[7]. However, for the states created during or shortly after the Enlightenment the choice was always deliberate: republics created in that period inevitably had anti-monarchial characteristics. For the United States the opposition to the British Monarchy played an important role, as did the overthrow of the French Monarchy in the creation of the first French Republic. By the time of the creation of the Fifth Republic in that country "anti-monarchist" tendencies were barely felt. The relations of that country to other countries made no distinctions whether these other countries were "monarchies" or not.

Role of religion

[8]Before several Reformation movements established themselves in Europe, changes in the religious landscape rarely had any relation to the form of government adopted by a country. For instance the transition from polytheism to Christianity in Ancient Rome maybe had brought new rulers, but no change in the idea that monarchy was the obvious way to rule a country. Similarly, late Middle Age republics, like Venice, emerged without questioning the religious standards set by the Roman Catholic church.

This would change, for instance, by the cuius regio, eius religio from the Treaty of Augsburg (1555): this treaty, applicable in the Holy Roman Empire and affecting the numerous (city-)states of Germany, ordained citizens to follow the religion of their ruler, whatever Christian religion that ruler chose - apart from Calvinism (which remained forbidden by the same treaty). In France the king abolished the relative tolerance towards non-Catholic religions resulting from the Edict of Nantes (1598), by the Edict of Fontainebleau (1685). In the United Kingdom and in Spain the respective monarchs had each established their favourite brand of Christianity, so that by the time of the Enlightenment in Europe (including the depending colonies) there was not a single absolute monarchy that tolerated another religion than the official one of the state.

Republics reducing state religion impact

An important reason why people could choose their society to be organised as a republic is the prospect of staying free of state religion: in this approach living under a monarch is seen as more easily inducing a uniform religion. All great monarchies had their state religion, in the case of pharaohs and some emperors this could even lead to a religion where the monarch (or his dynasty) were endowed with a god-like status (see for example imperial cult). On a different scale kingdoms can be entangled in a specific flavour of religion: Catholicism in Belgium, Church of England in the United Kingdom, Orthodoxy in Tsaristic Russia and many more examples.

In absence of a monarchy, there can be no monarch pushing towards a single religion. As this had been the general perception by the time of the Enlightenment, it is not so surprising that republics were at that time seen as the preferable form of state organisation, if one wanted to avoid the downsides of living under a too influential state religion:

Several states that called themselves republics have been fiercely anti-religious. This is particularly true for communist republics like the (former) Soviet Republics, North Vietnam, North Korea, and China.

Republics highlighting state religion impact

Some countries or states prefer or preferred to organise themselves as a republic, precisely because it allows them to inscribe a more or less obligatory state religion in their constitution: Islamic republics generally take this approach, but the same is also true (in varying degrees) for example in the Jewish state of Israel, in the Protestant republic that originated in the Netherlands during the Renaissance[12], and in the Catholic Irish Republic, among others. In this case the advantage that is sought is that no broad-thinking monarch could push his citizens towards a less strict application of religious prescriptions (like for instance the Millet system had done in the Ottoman Empire[13]) or change to another religion altogether (like the swapping of religions under the Henry VIII/Edward VI/Mary I/Elizabeth I succession of monarchs in England). Such approach of an ideal republic based on a consolidated religious foundation played an important role for example in the overthrow of the regime of the Shah in Iran, to be replaced by a republic with influential ayatollahs (which is the term for religious leaders in that country), the most influential of which is called "supreme leader".

Concepts of democracy

Republics are often associated with democracy, which seems natural if one acknowledges the meaning of the expression from which the word "republic" derives (see: res publica). This association between "republic" and "democracy" is however far from a general understanding, even if acknowledging that there are several forms of democracy[14]. This section tries to give an outline of which concepts of democracy are associated with which types of republics.

As a preliminary remark it should be noted that the concept of "one equal vote per adult" did not become a genererally-accepted principle in democracies until around the middle of the 20th century: before that in all democracies the valour of ones vote (or the right to vote) depended on financial situation, sex, race, or a combination of these and other factors. Many forms of government in previous times termed "democracy", including for instance the Athenian democracy, would, when transplanted to the early 21st century be classified as plutocracy or a broad oligarchy, because of the rules on how votes were counted.

In a Western approach, warned by the possible dangers and impracticality of direct democracy described since antiquity[15], there was a convergence towards representative democracy, for republics as well as monarchies, from the Enlightenment on. A direct democracy instrument like referendums is still basically mistrusted in many of the countries that adopted representative democracy. Nonetheless, some republics like Switzerland have a great deal of direct democracy in their state organisation, with usually several issues put before the people by referendum every year.

Marxism inspired state organisations that, at the height of the Cold War, had barely more than a few external appearances in common with Western types of democracies. That is, notwithstanding that on an ideological level Marxism and communism sought to empower proletarians. A Communist republic like Fidel Castro's Cuba has many "popular committees" to allow participation from citizens on a very basic level, without much of a far-reaching political power resulting from that. This approach to democracy is sometimes termed Basic democracy, but the term is contentious: the intended result is often something in between direct democracy and grassroots democracy, but connotations may vary[16].

Some of the hardline totalitarianism lived on in the East, even after the Iron Curtain fell. Sometimes the full name of such republics can be deceptive: having "people's" or "democratic" in the name of a country can, in some cases bear no relation with the concepts of democracy (neither "representative" nor "direct") that grew in the West. It also should be clear that many of these "Eastern" type of republics fall outside a definition of a republic that supposes control over who is in power by the people at large – unless it is accepted that the preference the people displays for their leader is in all cases authentic.

Influence of republicanism

Main article: Republicanism

Like Anti-monarchism and religious differences, republicanism played no equal role in the emergence of the many actual republics. Up to the republics that originated in the late middle ages, even if, from what we know about them, they also can be qualified "republics" in a modern understanding of the word, establishing the kind and amount of "republicanism" that led to their emergence is often limited to educated guesswork, based on sources that are generally recognised to be partly fictitious reconstruction[17].

Over time there were various mixtures of republicanism along with democratic theories of the rights of individuals, which (for instance in the Age of Enlightenment) would find expression in the formation of "liberal" and "socialist" parties. What both liberalism and socialism shared was the belief in the self-determination of peoples, and in individual human dignity. But they disagreed and continue to disagree on whether this required a republic, what is the "exact" use of the term republic, and to what degree economic liberties should be regulated. This conflict is often described in terms of capitalism versus socialism, and the compromise between democracy and having an herditary head of state would be called constitutional monarchy.

In antiquity

A number of cities of the Levant achieved collective rule. Arwad has been cited[18] as the first known example of a republic, in which the people, rather than a monarch, are described as sovereign.

The important politico-philosophical writings of Antiquity that survived the middle ages rarely had any influence on the emergence or strengthening of republics in the time they were written. When Plato wrote the dialogue that later, in English speaking countries, became know as The Republic (a faulty translation from several points of view), Athenian democracy had already been established, and was not influenced by the treatise (if it had, it would have become less republican in a modern understanding). Plato's own experiment with his political principles in Syracuse were a failure. Cicero's De re publica, far from being able to redirect the Roman state to reinforce its republican form of governement, rather reads as a prelude to the Imperial form of government that indeed emerged soon after Cicero's death.

In the renaissance

The emergence of the Renaissance, on the other hand, was marked by the adoption of many of these writings from Antiquity, which led to a more or less coherent view, retroactively termed "classical republicanism". Differences however remained regarding which kind of "mix" in a mixed government type of ideal state would be the most inherently republican. For those republics that emerged after the publication of the Renaissance philosophies regarding republics, like the United Provinces in the Netherlands, it is not always all that clear what role exactly was played by republicanism - among a host of other reasons - that led to the choice for "republic" as form of state ("other reasons" indicated elsewhere in this article: e.g., not finding a suitable candidate as monarch; anti-Catholicism; a middle class striving for political influence).

Enlightenment republicanism

The Enlightenment had brought a new generation of political thinkers, showing that, among other things, political philosophy was in the process of refocussing to political science. This time the influence of the political thinkers, like Locke, on the emergence of republics in America and France soon thereafter was unmistakable: Separation of powers, Separation of church and state, etc were introduced with a certain degree of success in the new republics, along the lines of the major political thinkers of the day.

In fact, the Enlightenment had set the standard for republics, as well as in many cases for monarchies, in the next century. The most important principles established by the close of the Enlightenment were the rule of law, the requirement that governments reflect the self-interest of the people that were subject to that law, that governments act in the national interest, in ways which are understandable to the public at large, and that there be some means of self-determination.

Proletarian republicanism

The next major shift in political thinking was pushed forward by Karl Marx, who argued that classes, rather than nationalities, had interests. He argued that governments represented the interests of the dominant class, and that, eventually, the states of his era would be overthrown by those dominated by the rising class of the proletariat[19].

Here again the formation of republics along the line of the new political philosophies followed quickly after the emergence of the philosophies: from the early 20th century on communist type of republics were set up (communist monarchies were at least by name excluded), many of them standing for about a century - but in increasing tension with the states that were more direct heirs of the ideas of the Enlightenment.

Islamic republicanism?

Following decolonialization in the second half of 20th century, the political dimension of the Islam[20] knew a new impulse, leading to several Islamic republics. As far as "Enlightenment" and "communist" principles were sometimes up to a limited level incorporated in these republics, such principles were always subject to principles laid down in the Qur'an. While, however, there is no apparent reason why sharia and related concepts of islamic political thought should emerge in a republican form of government, the strife for islamic republics is generally not qualified as a form of "republicanism".

Economical factors

The ancient concept of res publica, when applied to politics, had always implied that citizens on one level or another took part in governing the state: at least citizens were not indifferent to decisions taken by those in charge, and could engage in political debate. A line of thought followed often by historians[21] is that citizens, under normal circumstances, would only become politically active if they had spare time above and beyond the daily effort for mere survival. In other words, enough of a wealthy middle class (that did not get its political influence from a monarch as nobility did) is often seen as one of the preconditions to establish a republican form of government. In this reasoning neither the cities of the Hanseatic League, nor late 19th century Catalonia, nor the Netherlands during their Golden Age emerging in the form of a republic comes as a surprise, all of them at the top of their wealth through commerce and societies with an influential and rich middle class.

Here also the different nature of republics inspired by Marxism becomes apparent: Karl Marx theorised that the government of a state should be based on the proletarians, that is on those whose political opinions never had been asked before, even less had been considered to really matter when designing a state organisation. There was a problem Marxist/Communist types of republics had to solve: most proletarians were lacking interest and/or experience in designing a state organisation, even if acquainted with Das Kapital or Engels' writings. While the practical political involvement of proletarians on the level of an entire country hardly ever materialised, these communist republics were more often than not organised in a very top-down structure.

Aggregations of states

When a country or state is organised on several levels (that is: several states that are "associated" in a "superstructure", or a country is split in sub-states with a relative form of independency) several models exist:

  • Both over-arching structure and sub-states take the form of a republic (Example: United States)
  • The over-arching structure is a republic, while the sub-states are not necessarily (Example: European Union);
  • The over-arching structure is not a republic, while the sub-states can be (Example: Holy Roman Empire, after the emergence of republics, like those of the Hanseatic League, within its realm)

Sub-national republics

In general being a republic also implies sovereignty as for the state to be ruled by the people it cannot be controlled by a foreign power. There are important exceptions to this, for example, Republics in the Soviet Union were member states which had to meet three criteria to be named republics,

1) Be on the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to be able to take advantage of their theoretical right to secede,
2) Be economically strong enough to be self sufficient upon secession, And
3) Be named after at least one million people of the ethnic group which should make up the majority population of said republic.

Republics were originally created by Stalin and continue to be created even today in Russia. Russia itself is not a republic but a federation.

States of the United States are required, like the federal government, to be republican in form, with final authority resting with the people. This was required because the states were intended to create and enforce most domestic laws, with the exception of areas delegated to the federal government and prohibited to the states. The founding fathers of the country intended most domestic laws to be handled by the states, although, over time, the federal government has gained more and more influence over domestic law. Requiring the states to be a republic in form was also seen as protecting the citizens' rights and preventing a state from becoming a dictatorship or monarchy.

Supra-national republics

Sovereign countries can decide to hand in a limited part of their sovereignty to a supra-national organisation. The most famous example of this, since the second half of the 20th century, is the emergence of the European Union, which models its organisation as a republic. That it would be a republic in a strict sense can be debated while the European Union is not a "country" in a strict sense. Being a republic is not part of the admission criteria for the member states[22]. Although the largest political family of EU parlementaries has a Christian denomination, the European constitution establishes its form of government as secular[23].

Examples of republics

Main article: List of Republics

In the early 21st century the states that are no hereditary monarchies, but still don't label themselves as republics are the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, the State of Vatican City, the State of Israel, the Union of Myanmar and the Russian Federation. Israel and Russia, and even Myanmar and Libya, would meet many definitions of the term republic, however.

Republics by additional qualifier:

Republics in political theory

Main article: Republics in political theory

In political theory and political science, the term "republic" is generally applied to a state where the government's political power depends solely on the consent, however nominal, of the people governed. This usage leads to two sets of problematic classification. The first are states which are oligarchical in nature, but are not nominally hereditary, such as many dictatorships, the second are states where all, or almost all, real political power is held by democratic institutions, but which have a monarch as nominal head of state, generally known as constitutional monarchies. The first case causes many outside the state to deny that the state should, in fact, be seen as a Republic. In many states of the second kind there are active "republican" movements that promote the ending of even the nominal monarchy, and the semantic problem is often resolved by calling the state a Democracy.

Generally, political scientists try to analyse underlying realities, not the names by which they go: whether a political leader calls himself "king" or "president", and the state he governs a "monarchy" or a "republic" is not the essential characteristic, whether he exerces power as an autocrat or not is. In this sense political analysts may say that the First World War was, in many respects, the death knell for monarchy, and the establishment of republicanism, whether de facto and/or de jure, as being essential for a modern state. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire were both abolished by the terms of the peace treaty after the war, the Russian Empire overthrown by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Even within the victorious states, monarchs were gradually being stripped of their powers and prerogatives, and more and more the government was in the hands of elected bodies whose majority party headed the executive. Nonetheless post-WWI Germany, a de jure republic, would develop into a de facto autocracy by the mid 1930s: the new peace treaty, after the Second World War, took more precaution in making the terms thus that also de facto (the Western part of) Germany would remain a republic.

References and notes

  1. ^  Shorter definitions of Republic, like for instance Webster's "a state where the head of state is not a monarch, and in modern times is usually a president", don't acknowledge that the distinction between monarchy and republic was not always made as it is in modern times (see for instance Machiavelli footnote below); that oligarchies are traditionally considered neither monarchy nor republic, and that such definition depends very much on the monarch concept, which has various definitions, not making clear which of these is used for defining republic.
  2. ^  Tacitus, Ann. I,1-15.
  3. ^  Example: Leopold III of Belgium replaced by Baudouin in 1951 under popular pressure.
  4. ^  See for example the opening chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince. Note however that even Machiavelli could not always keep to this mutual exclusiveness of "republics" and "monarchies", not even in The Prince: for example, when he tries to characterise the form of government of the Papal States in the 11th chapter of that book, he points out that usual methods and distinctions are not applicable for analysing such type of state.
  5. ^  For instance Mobutu Sese Seko is generally considered such "autocrat" that tried to give an appearance of "republican democracy" to his style of government, for instance by allowing something that was generally regarded a sockpuppet opposition.
  6. ^  References where in everyday language countries with a king or emperor as head of state are termed republic have not been encountered.
  7. ^  For instance the United Provinces: after the Oath of Abjuration (1581) the Duke of Anjou and later the Earl of Leicester were asked to rule the Netherlands. After these candidates had declined the office, the Republic was only established in 1588.
  8. ^  This section draws from, among others, Geschiedenis der nieuwe tijden by J. Warichez and L. Brounts, 1946, Standaard Boekhandel (Antwerp/Brussels/Ghent/Louvain) and Cultuurgetijden (history books for secondary school in 6 volumes), Dr. J. A. Van Houtte et. al., several editions and reprints in 1960ies through 1970ies, Van In (Lier).
  9. ^  Note however that individual states of the US could have a state religion.
  10. ^  see also Republicanism and religion
  11. ^  Example: French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools - a similar law was tentatively debated in Belgium, but deemed incompatible with the less profoundly secularized Belgian state.
  12. ^  After the Duke of Anjou and the Earl of Leicester had declined the offer to become ruler of the Seven Provinces (see note above), William I of Orange had been the obvious choice for king: the volume Nieuwe tijden from the Cultuurgetijden series as mentioned in a previous note, elaborates on p. 63-65 (supported by a quote of the contemporary Pontus Payen) that William of Orange was perceived as too lenient towards Catholicism to be acceptable as king for the protestants.
  13. ^  Although in Turkey the ensuing republic would become relatively tolerant towards other religions, the straight multicultural approach of the Millet system, that had allowed Christians and Jews to form state-in-state like communities, would remain unparallelled.
  14. ^  See for example Federalist No. 10 by James Madison - An original framer of the U.S. Constitution advocates a republic over a democracy. See Republicanism in the United States for the connotations of the terms "democracy" and "republic" in the 1787 context when this article was written. Further clarification of this "democracy" vs "republic" idea in the US can be found in Republicanism in the United States#A typical definition of democracy vs republic
  15. ^  Some of the earliest warnings in this sense came from Socrates' pupils Plato and Xenophon around 400 BC: indeed their friend Socrates had been condemned to death in an entirely "democratic" system at Athens, hence they preferred the less democratic Spartan system of government. See also Trial of Socrates - Laws (dialogue).
  16. ^  For instance in Pakistan the expression "basic democracy" is tied to the epoch of the military dictature.
  17. ^  For example, what is known about the origins of the Roman Republic is based on works by Polybius, Livy, Plutarch, and others, all of which wrote at least some centuries after the emergence of that Republic — without exception all these authors have historical exactitude issues, including relative uncertainty over the year when the Roman Republic would have emerged.
  18. ^  Martin Bernal, Black Athena Writes Back (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 359.
  19. ^  See for instance Marxism, Paris Commune.
  20. ^  That Islam would have a more intrinsic political dimension than most other religions is argued, among others, by Afshin Ellian ([24]) in his book Brieven van een Pers (Meulenhoff - ISBN 9029075228)
  21. ^  For instance, Historia series of history books, chief editor prof. dr. M. Dierickx sj, published by De Nederlandse Boekhandel (Antwerpen/Amsterdam) in several editions from 1955 to the late 1970ies studies these links between the presence of a wealthy middle class and the republics that emerged throughout history.
  22. ^  see for example Title IX and Title I in the text for a constitution for Europe
  23. ^  After some fierce debate it was decided that the 2005 version of the Constitution proposal would not make any reference to the "Christian" roots (among other communal values) of Europe, see Art. I,2 of the European Constitution proposal.

Further reading

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, ou Principes de Droit Politique (1762)
  • William Everdell, The End of Kings: A History of Republics and Republicans, 1983, 2nd ed., Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 2000
  • Martin van Gelderen & Quentin Skinner, eds., Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, v1, Republicanism and Constitutionalism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2002
  • Martin van Gelderen & Quentin Skinner, eds., Republicanism: A Shared European Heritage, v2, The Values of Republicanism in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2002
  • Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, NY: Oxford U.P., 1997, ISBN: 0198290837; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
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