The Pathos of Politics – Political Systems

Political Systems

There are 5 principal political systems: theocratic, monarchal, single-party, military, and democratic.

Once ubiquitous, ruling under religious auspices is now confined to Islamic countries, and of course Vatican City, the Roman Catholic papal city-state.

Monarchies were the norm until the rise of the middle class, beginning in the 18th century, whereupon democratization took hold. Yet 44 countries, including 16 realms under Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, still have a monarch as head of state. Only 2 monarchies went out in the 21st century. The last Samoan king died, leaving a parliamentary democracy. In Nepal it took a combination of a communist rebellion, a populist uprising, and a murderous prince, who killed 10 royal family members, to bring down the kingdom.


Lesotho is a landlocked country, surrounded by South Africa. It is a scenic land encircled by formidable mountains, with narrow valleys.

This mountain kingdom has been home to Khoisan hunter-gathers since the Neolithic. In the 18th century, tribal conflicts were overshadowed by those with Dutch, and then English, colonists.

Lesotho became a British protectorate in 1868. It gained independence in 1966.

The first elections led to civil war and single-party rule. In 1986, a coup transitioned the government to a monarchy with military backing.

The country became a constitutional monarchy in 2002, but political strife continued. An abortive military coup on 30 August 2014 had the prime minister briefly flee to South Africa.

The country is culturally conservative, but its people welcomed modernization programs that begin in the 1990s, at the cost of extensive environmental damage.

Poverty remains deep and widespread. The UN describes 40% of the population as “ultra-poor.” Lesotho has one of the world’s highest rates of HIV/AIDS infection.

Lesotho is typical of many African nations, where the legacy of colonization has been false hopes, political instability, and environmental destruction via the injection of modern capitalism.


Several Middle Eastern states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and United Arab Emirates, are Muslim monarchies: hereditary rule backed by Islamic clergy. Their legal system – Sharia – emanates from Islamic law.

In Islam, the legislative power and competence to establish laws belong exclusively to Allāh. ~ Ayatollah Khomeini

No state is exclusively governed by the Sharia; rather, where Sharia is used, it blends with Western law. The 2 states most extensively using the Sharia are Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 Saudi Arabia

In pre-Muslim times, what was to become Saudi Arabia was populated by nomadic tribes in an inhospitable desert, with a few trading settlements, notably Mecca and Medina. Muhammad changed that: unifying the peninsula into a single Islamic polity.

The suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire on the Arabian peninsula ended when World War 1 ground to a halt.

Saudi Arabia came into statehood in 1932, as Abdul Aziz managed to meld squabbling tribes into a kingdom. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. That changed dramatically in 1938, when vast oil reserves were discovered.

In 1945, US President Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi King Abdul Aziz. The two got along famously. FDR succeeded in ensuring that the US, not Britain, would control Saudi oil. (In 1988, the Saudis bought out America’s oil interest in their country: the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) becoming Saudi Aramco.)

In return, the US provided security for the kingdom. The arrangement of oil for security bonded the Saudis to the US. (Now, Saudi Arabia buys over $110 billion in weapons from American defense industry manufacturers annually.)

In the decades following the 2nd World War, Saudi Arabia grew into the world’s largest supplier of petroleum. That, and its close relationship with the US, meant outsized political clout among the great powers.

As a slap at the nations that had supported Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli (Yom Kippur) War, Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott. Oil prices quadrupled, shocking the economies of the Western world.

The country grew wealthy, but the ruling elite did not care for its people, nor provide an outlet for civic participation. The result has been simmering unrest which is brutally suppressed. The practice of Islamic law plays an outsized role in this.

A half-century ago, the Saudi monarchy made a tacit bargain with radical Islamists: it would fund jihadism around the world as long as terrorists didn’t blow up targets in Saudi Arabia. Saudi money funded the Saudi men who pulled off 9/11. After that attack, Saudi officials swore they had shut off the money spigot. But the tacit bargain remains in place. Saudi Arabia still funds Islamic militants.

Despite government pledges to abolish sex discrimination, women are forbidden from traveling, marrying, or obtaining higher education without approval of a male guardian. One teenage girl was raped 14 times by a gang of 7, but because she was not with a guardian, she was given 200 lashes and 6 months in jail; a worse punishment than the rapists.

More generally, Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Civil rights activists are persecuted. Homosexuality is a capital crime, as is blasphemy.

Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of non-Islamic religions, and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities.

Those arrested are often not told of the crime of which they are accused, nor given access to a lawyer. They are subject to torture if they do not confess.

Suspects may be held for months or even years without prosecution or judicial review. In November 2017, the newly appointed Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, had hundreds of leading government officials and businessmen arrested for alleged corruption. Many were coerced and tortured, their assets confiscated. The effort was to consolidate power.

There is no formal penal code. Prosecutors and judges can criminalize behaviors under broad, catch-all charges, such as “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom,” or “breaking allegiance with the ruler.”

Lawyers are not allowed to assist suspects during interrogation. An accused is often unable to examine evidence or witnesses, or even be allowed to present a legal defense.

There is a presumption of guilt at trial. There are no jury trials. Most trials are held in secret.

There are ~70 or more public beheadings by the authorities each year, mainly for murder, armed robbery, and drug smuggling. Over 1/3rd of those executed were convicted of nonviolent crimes. Men and women have been executed for “sorcery.”

We deal with sorcerers in a special way. ~ Sheikh Adel Faqih, director of Riyadh Saudi police witchcraft division

Other punishments include amputation for theft and flogging for selling alcohol.

Foreign workers face harsh treatment by their employers. Domestic workers, most of them women, are subject to psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without authorities holding their employers to account. Workers who report employer abuses may face prosecution on counterclaims of theft or sorcery.

Ordinary Saudis are not put off by the system, as they say it keeps their crime rate down.

The UK has long had cordial relations with the Saudis. It has been a major supplier of armaments to the kingdom since 1965.

The US too has cultivated close relations. While China has been chided by the US for its human rights violations, no such censure has been promulgated against the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the heavyweight nemeses in the Middle East. From 1979, when the Iran theocracy arose, the 2 countries have torn apart the Middle East with proxy wars.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a struggle for dominance that has turned much of the Middle East into their battlefield. Rather than fighting directly, they wield, and in that way worsen, the region’s direst problems: dictatorship, militia violence and religious extremism. ~ American political analyst Max Fisher

The rivalry stems from the petty strains of the 2 countries having different Islamic denominations. Saudi Arabia is dominantly Sunni, while Iran is Shia. ~90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. In contrast, relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are much less tense, as both view Iran as a threat.


Military regimes are functionally equivalent to single-party rule, though led by a strongman and a crony clique for a ruling elite. Pakistan, Sudan, and Myanmar are exemplary military regimes.

Nations may at times undergo evolution from one regime form to another. Pakistan toys with a facsimile of democracy from time to time.

Changes in political systems are typically sparked by crisis, usually originating with governmental incompetence. In inadvertently loosening the reins of absolutism, King John I of England provided a historic example.

 Magna Carta

To all free men of our kingdom we have also granted, for us and our heirs forever, all the liberties written out below…. ~ Magna Carta (1215)

The Angevin Empire was a hegemony in the 12th and early 13th centuries, helmed (in succession) by 3 English kings before its dissolution. At its height, the domain extended from the British Isles down through a swath of western France to the Pyrenees.

Henry II was an energetic and ruthless ruler who established the Angevin Empire, driven by the desire to restore the lands held by his royal grandfather, Henry I.

Henry’s son Richard succeeded him in 1189, though only after much tumult. Richard I earned a reputation for fortitude in his military campaigns, and is one of the few English kings to be remembered by his epithet: Richard the Lionheart.

Unlike his predecessors, King John did not issue a general charter to his barons when he took the throne in 1199. It began his reign on the wrong foot, and he never recovered.

John lost most of his ancestral lands in France to French King Philip II in 1204. He struggled to regain them in the Anglo-French war, raising extensive taxes on his barons to finance the expensive folly.

By the time of his utter defeat in 1214, John was facing revolt by the nobility. He attempted to resolve the matter with a negotiated charter. Slogging through a sea of mutual distrust, the result was the 1215 Magna Carta (Latin for “great charter”).

In essence, the barons imposed their will on an unpopular king, who signed under duress. It only delayed what John feared most: rebellion.

Neither side complied with the document’s conditions. Compliance was never either’s intentions. Civil war ensued shortly thereafter.

John died shortly after bringing the 1st Baron’s War (1215–1216) to a stalemate, thanks in large part to dissension among the barony. This ill-starred, avaricious, naturally suspicious, and lustful man was not missed.

John’s successor – King Henry III – reissued a revised charter in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes to finance his unsuccessful campaign to reclaim familial lands in France. The next king, Edward I, confirmed his charter as statutory law in 1297.

In being renewed by each monarch in turn, the regal charter became part of English political life; though as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, charters increasingly lost their practical potency.

There was upsurge in interest in Magna Carta at the end of the 16th century. Liberal-minded legal scholars argued that the document was a foundation for individual freedoms, including habeas corpus: a recourse against unlawful imprisonment.

No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised, neither will we attack him or send anyone to attack him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. ~ Magna Carta

This exaggerated account claimed that the Norman conquest of 1066 had overthrown these rights, and that Magna Carta had been a popular attempt at their restoration.

In actuality, the document’s granting of liberties had been confined to nobility. There had been no concern for the common man.

Fanning the historical distortion, jurists in the early 17th century relied upon Magna Carta to argue against the divine right of kings, which was propounded by the Stuart monarchs of Scotland.

The political myth of Magna Carta granting rights to ordinary folk persisted well into the 19th century. In 1787 it influenced Americans in drafting their constitution.

To this day, supreme court justices invoke Magna Carta as a talisman for their view of civil rights and liberties. SCOTUS has cited Magna Carta in more than 170 decisions. In a 2012 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that church liberties were unrestrained by the law, and thereby church officials could discriminate against their employees; a long-standing right established in Magna Carta, Roberts fantastically asserted.

Initiated via regal hubris, its import mythologized, the Magna Carta simply reflected a centuries-long transition away from absolutist monarchy. The English barons who brought King John to heel were looking for payback, not a new and enlightened constitutional order.


Transitional governments often exhibit an especial degree of instability, as special interests jockey for power. But then, some governments are simply instable.

Afghanistan, which has no tradition of democracy, was led by the nose into it after the US invaded and temporarily dispatched the Taliban dictatorship. This naturally corrupt tribal society has been unable to get the hang of free elections.

But then, neither has the United States, despite advertising itself as the home of democracy. Various voting shenanigans are common in America, from gerrymandering to voter suppression to simply throwing away cast ballots.

However surreptitious, fraud is an ever-present undertow in elections. It begins with those who stand for office.