This module is a resource for lecturers  


Types of political systems


Democratic systems are characterized by governments that are voted for by the people (who must have a meaningful choice) and are meant to serve the interests of the public. In democracies, citizens hold the power which they exercise by voting and other forms of political participation. Core values underpinning democracy include promoting and upholding basic human rights. It is useful to distinguish between democratic ideals and how democratic governments function in practice. Simply put, not all democracies are equally effective at protecting and promoting democratic ideals. Although that is not the focus of this Module, it is important for students to engage critically with the concepts in this Module. This means avoiding assumptions such as that all democracies are consistent with "democratic" principles, that democratic institutions necessarily promote public goods, and that all democratic governments are created equal. Rather, the point here is that democracies are a type of political system in which power is ideally held by the people.

By contrast, the power in authoritarian systems lies in the hands of the ruling minority (autocracies are an example of an authoritarian system with power in the hands of one person). Authoritarian systems are usually not constrained by the views and opinions of the public, even if they permit a system of voting. The values on which they are based are limited to the shared values of the minority in power which could be at odds with the overall interest of the public. There are distinct types of authoritarian systems, some of which are discussed later in this Module, and corruption may function and manifest differently relative to the nature of the political systems in question.

Hybrid systems, as the name implies, involve a combination of democratic (e.g. regular elections) and authoritarian features (e.g. political repression). The degree to which a hybrid political system shares features with either democracy or authoritarianism varies. It is important to note that corruption adversely affects all types of political systems: it appears in young and well-established democracies, in hybrid regimes, and in authoritarian or autocratic systems. In this way, corruption is an example and perhaps even a symptom of the erosion of public integrity and ethics and the loss of public trust in governance systems. For related discussions on the ethical dimensions of society and on public integrity and ethics see Module 3 and Module 13 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics, respectively.

While corruption affects all societies, scholars argue that the public acceptance of corruption varies across societies and contexts (Heidenheimer and Johnston, 2002; Kubbe and Engelbert, 2018). This implies that what is considered as a bribe in one country might be considered a gift in another. Yet, some corrupt activities take place in both developed and developing countries as well as in democratic and non-democratic systems alike, such as corruption in the education and defence sectors (see Module 9 and Module 11 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption, respectively), corruption in the police (O'Hara and Sainato, 2015) and corruption in the area of sport (Hough and Heaston, 2018). According to Alatas (1990, p. 304) corruption is a "trans-systemic issue" that affects all societies, classes, age groups and sexes, regardless political regimes and state organizations, based on specific traditions, values, norms, and institutions.

To theorize and understand corruption in a political context, Johnston (2005) reclassifies the three main political systems (i.e. democratic, hybrid and authoritarian) into four regime types:

  • Developed liberal democracies
  • New or reforming democracies
  • Weak transitional regimes; and
  • Authoritarian rule.

Thus, in Johnston's classification there are two types of hybrid systems within the range between democracy and authoritarianism. Through statistical analyses and case studies, Johnston shows that each of the four regime types is associated with a corresponding "syndrome" of corruption that is based on the way people pursue, use and exchange wealth and power:

  • Influence Markets - these involve advantages generated by decision makers within the institutions
  • Elite Cartels - these involve interconnected networks of political heads, business leaders, members of the military and so on, who tend to exploit institutions and systems for their own power and gain
  • Oligarchs and Clans - these involve monopolies and power struggles between ruling elites
  • Official Mogul - these involve individuals with power engaging in corruption with very little, if any, competition.

While Johnston's different syndromes of corruption are conceptual categories based on archetypes, they are useful as a point of departure for discussing how corruption can manifest itself in different political systems. They reflect different combinations of influences and power relations within countries, and accordingly shed light on the different anti-corruption strategies and reforms that are required in each case (Johnston, 2014, p. 246-248). The four syndromes are discussed in further detail below.

Next: Corruption and democracy
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