A republic is a form of government in which the power is held by the people, but instead of ruling directly, the people loan their power to elected representatives who represent them and their interests. The word "republic" comes from the Latin term res public, which means "public things," "public matter," or "public affair." This reflects the fact that governing in republics is considered the right and duty of the people as a whole, not the exclusive privilege of a small, elite group of rulers. In some countries, such as the United States, "Republican" is also the proper name of a political party. In those countries, a "republican" government is one in which the people elect politicians to represent them, but a "Republican" government is one run by members of the Republican party.
Republic vs representative democracy vs direct democracy
Republics are also referred to as representative democracies. These differ from direct democracies, in which citizens govern the state themselves, not through representatives. While it sounds ideal, in actual practice a true direct democracy in which every citizen voted on every government decision would be logistically impractical, if not impossible. Moreover, because most people lack the time it would take to be fully educated about every decision, it's likely that most votes would include a huge number of poorly informed voters.
In light of these complications, all current modern democracies are republics. Direct democracies and republics are both considered the opposite of dictatorships, monarchies, or authoritarian/totalitarian regimes, in which decisions are made by just a few people—perhaps even a single person. Most often, a republic is a single sovereign state. In some cases, however, a republic is a union, often called a federation, of smaller, sub-sovereign states. These states are typically also republican in nature. Each of the U.S. states is guaranteed a “republican form of government” by the United States Constitution. The Soviet Union—formally known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or U.S.S.R.—was another federation. Its fifteen individual nations were all sub-sovereign republics.
History of the republic
Before the 1600s, the term "republic" was used to designate any state that was not an authoritarian regime. Republic could encompass not only democratic states but also oligarchies, aristocracies, and monarchies. French philosopher Jean Bodin wrote a definition of the republic in his Six Books of the Commonwealth in 1576. It read, “the rightly ordered government of a number of families, and of those things which are their common concern, by a sovereign power.” The definition of a republic began to shift during the 17th and 18th centuries, amid growing resistance to absolutist regimes and a series of revolutions. These include the American Revolution and the French Revolution. These events shaped the term "republic" to designate governments in which the leader is periodically appointed under a constitution (as opposed to inherited as it would be in a monarchy), typically by an election.
Which countries are really republics?
159 of the world’s sovereign states use the word "republic" in their official names. For example, the proper name of the country we usually call South Korea is actually the Republic of Korea. However, compiling a list of which countries truly operate as republics is no easy feat. This is partly due to the generously broad modern definition of a republic and partly due to the fact that the term is occasionally incorporated into the titles of countries that have arguably distorted its definition. One well-known example of this is North Korea, whose official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, despite the fact that the country is widely considered to be a military dictatorship and a totalitarian regime rather than a republic. At the same time, many of the world’s most prominent true republics, such as the United States, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom, do not include the word “republic” in their names at all.
Even without considering nations' official names, the distinction between what qualifies as a republic and what does not can be fuzzy at times. For instance, Russia is theoretically a republic because its government is composed largely of elected representatives. However, significant evidence exists that the elections are heavily controlled and influenced, if not rigged outright, by the current government. This casts doubt upon the integrity of the nation's elections and calls into question just how much power the people have when choosing their representatives and whether those representatives' actions truly reflect the will of the people.
Other governments, such as Cuba and China, have goen one step further and established a "one-party" system in which all political parties other than the ruling party are illegal. If elections are held, they feature only specific candidates—often only one per position—hand-picked by the existing government. The ruling officials are indeed voted in by the people, but the people have no choice in the matter, which arguably subverts the concept of a republic and usurps the power from the people.
On the other hand, several other countries (mostly former British colonies) would likely be republics if not for a technicality. Countries such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are defined as constitutional monarchies because they have a queen or king who acts as the head of the state. However, that monarch's role is largely ceremonial and the rest of the government functions nearly identically to a parliamentary republic, with the people choosing the overwhelming majority of their representatives in free and fair elections.
Scenarios such as these are why the political terms de jure and de facto are often used. De jure refers to the legally recognized (read: theoretical or official "on paper") version of the government, while de facto refers to the way a government actually operates. It is not uncommon for a country's de jure government to be a republic, but for its de facto version to be something quite different (or vice versa). In light of these intricacies, it's important to remember that whether a country is a republic or not is not necessarily an accurate indicator as to the level of freedom, electoral choice, or government oppression in that country.
Presidential republics and parliamentary republics
There are many countries in the world with republic governments, although the specific type of republic they have can vary. The two most common basic types of republic are the presidential republic and the parliamentary republic. The differences are largely in the structure and the distribution of power.
For instance, in a presidential republic, the executive branch of the government is led by a president who is elected by the people. In a parliamentary republic, the executive branch is led by a group of elected officials, which may or may not be called a parliament, and that group elects a prime minister from among themselves. Both of these configurations have numerous variations, including semi-presidential systems in which power is more balanced between the president and the prime minister.
The United States is a presidential republic. After the American Revolution ended and the colonies won independence from Great Britain, the Constitution was written, establishing the United States as a federal constitutional democratic republic. Every four years, American citizens over the age of 18 elect a new President and participate in other smaller elections. Like many other nations, the U.S. is considered a hybrid government and is simultaneously a constitutional republic, a representative democracy, and a democratic republic.
The republican government in the U.S. is based on three basic principles:
- The power and authority comes from the people and not a supreme authority (king)
- A written constitution protects the rights of the people
- Through the vote of the people, power is given to elected representatives based on majority rule to serve the interests of the citizens and act on their behalf. Additionally, the representatives of the country are responsible for helping all the people in the country, not just a few.
Germany is another example of a republic, although because it is a parliamentary republic its various branches are structured slightly differently from those in the United States. Germany’s government is considered to be a federal democratic constitutional republic. The German Constitution emphasizes the protection of individual liberty and the civil rights of the people. Article 38 of German Basic Law states that elections are to be universal, direct, free, equal, and secret. Elections in Germany include elections to the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, every four years.
Countries with a republic government
Countries that are presidential republics include, but are not limited to: Angola, Argetnina, Belarus, Benin, Bolivia, Brazil, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chile, Colombia, Comoros, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Djibouti, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Malawi, Maldives, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palau, Panma, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Korea, South Sudan, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Togo, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, United STates, Uruguay, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Countries that are semi-presidential republics include, but are not limited to: Algeria, Azerbaijan, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Congo (Democratic Reppublic of the), Congo (Republic of the), East Timor, Egypt, France, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Lithuania, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sri Lanka, Syria, Taiwan, Tunisia, and Ukraine.
Countries that are parliamentary republics include, but are not limited to: Alabnia, Armenia, Austria, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Dominica, Estonia, Ethiopia, Fiji, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Hungary, Iceland, India, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kiribati, Kosovo, Latvia, Lebanon, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Moldova, Montenegro, Nauru, Nepal, North Macedonia, Pakistan, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Somalia, South Africa, Suriname, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vanuatu.
Countries that are constitutional monarchies, but which function largely as republics: Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Belgium, Belize, Cambodia, Canada, Cook Islands, Denmark, Grenada, Jamaica, Japan, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Niue, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Kucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Tuvalu, and the United Kingdom.