Are republics more democratic than monarchies?

A new democratic index might tell us which systems produce better democracies.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip sitting in the Senate Chamber along with Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau in October 1977 (Source: Canadian Press, via CBC)

There has been a resurgence in the debate over whether Canada should remain a constitutional monarchy under the Crown or instead embrace an alternative system of government. The republican movement (i.e. advocating for the end of the monarchy rather than for conservativism in the US) has gained some momentum in Canada as a result of prolific scandals relating to Oprah Winfrey’s recent interview with Duchess of Sussex and the toxic workplace allegations facing former Governor General Julie Payette. These controversies have contributed to a “historic level” of support for Canada to replace the Queen with a directly elected head of state.

The monarchy-republic debate remains unsettled, but there are strengths to both sides of the discussion. On the one hand, republicans point out the antiquatedness of having governments being established by a head of state through a hereditary title. On the other hand, diehard monarchists draw on colonial nostalgia and history as a basis for continuing to observe regal traditions. Another camp is largely agnostic to the normative arguments favouring or opposing the change. This somewhat cynical group suspects that the requirements of provincial unanimity for the constitutional amendment process would effectively veto any republicanism movement.

Additionally, some scholars have noted that the elimination the monarchy in Canada risks eroding treaties signed with Indigenous peoples because these quasi-constitutional agreements were signed by the Crown rather than any other entity. Other scholars disagree with this argument, noting that upholding treaty rights would remain Canada’s obligation even if it immediately switched from a monarchy to a republic.

Regardless of the interpretation of the status of the “Crown” in treaty relations, it is clear that republicanizing Canada would require input from a broad range of provincial and Indigenous stakeholders.

Like most times that the role of the monarchy is discussed, this chapter in the perennial debate will likely fade away as Canadians turn their attention to more pressing issues such as a potential third wave of COVID-19, the rollout of vaccines, and a possible snap election later this year. But the recent regal controversies, paired with new data on global democracy, offer an opportunity to ask a tangential question: are republics more democratic than monarchies? A new study might offer a way to answer that question.

In February, the Economist released its most recent version of the Democracy Index, an annual survey of 167 countries based on five indicators: electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties. The average of these indicators then produces an overall score that identifies the level of democracy in a given country. The state’s score can range from 0 (authoritarian regime) to 10 (full democracy).

The report does not offer a rosy picture of the state of global democracy over the past year. According to the Economist, less than 9% of the world’s population lives in countries classified as full democracies. The average score across the 167 countries studied fell to 5.3 (between hybrid regime and flawed democracy). The Economist attributes this decline to the increased level of COVID-19 restrictions and a rise in insurrection events in countries such as Myanmar and the United States.

While the global outlook is negative, the opposite trend has been observed in Canada where the democratic score increased to 9.24. Canada also moved up two spots in the democratic leaderboard, with only New Zealand, Sweden, Iceland, and Norway ahead. Table 1 shows Canada’s position in relation to the other countries studied by the Economist.

Table 1. Democracy Index by region. Canada is ranked fifth in the world with a score of 9.24.

The exceptional performance of countries led by kings and queens has caused some commentators to point out the democratic advantages of monarchism.

While that pattern might offer a strong argument for the top ten countries, can the same be said for the remaining 150 on the list? What system of government produces the highest level of democratic strength? Like most of life’s tough questions, the best answers involve spreadsheets and statistical analysis.

(Note: If you’re not a fan of stats or methodological approaches, I would suggest skipping to my results and discussion. Otherwise, enjoy!)

To measure the strength of the association between a system of government and overall democratic score, I copied the data from the report into an Excel spreadsheet, and then added an extra column to categorize each country’s system based on this list. The categories I used are:

  • Absolute monarchy — a hereditary head of state is vested with all authority (ex. Eswatini)
  • Constitutional monarchy — a hereditary head of state exercises power (usually ceremonial) along with other institutions, such as a parliament (ex. Canada)
  • Presidential republic — a democratically elected head of state is also the head of government, independent of the legislature (ex. United States)
  • One-party state — a head of state is also the leader of the country’s sole legitimate political movement (ex. Cuba)
  • Parliamentary republic (ceremonial) — a ceremonial head of state oversees ministers subject to a confidence vote (ex. Germany)
  • Parliamentary republic (executive) — an executive head of state is appointed by the legislature (ex. South Africa)
  • Provisional government — transitional/military government (ex. Myanmar)
  • Semi-presidential republic — an elected head of state has some executive powers, independent of the legislature (ex. France)

Once every country was categorized based on their system of government, separate columns were made for each of the above-mentioned systems. These columns were populated with a 1 or 0 score to denote whether the they had that given system of government. From there, the Pearson’s correlation coefficient was established to measure the strength of the relationship between each individual type of government and their overall democratic score. A correlation coefficient is a number between -1 and 1, where a value higher than 0 indicates a positive level of association (in this case, a higher overall democratic score) and a value lower than 0 indicates a negative level of association (a lower overall democratic score).

To ensure that these results are statistically significant, the correlational coefficients must exceed the critical value for 99% confidence based on the number of cases. The critical value (c) is calculated on Excel using the following formula:


Since the number of cases identified in the study (n) is 166*, the critical value is 0.199. This means that a relationship between a system of government and overall democratic score is statistically significant if it is either greater than 0.199 or lower than -0.199. Anything in between is not significant at the 99% confidence level.

On the surface, Table 2 offers a predictable picture. One-party and military states were associated with the poorest democratic performance while constitutional monarchies and parliamentary republics were associated with the best performance.

Table 2. Pearson’s correlation coefficients for the relationships between systems of government and overall democratic score. Relationships were statistically significant if greater than 0.199 or lower than -0.199.

The most surprising result was that full presidential republics were not only negatively associated with democratic scores, but that this negative association was a statistically more significant one than the relationship between overall score and absolute monarchies.

The results appear to show that being a constitutional monarchy is most strongly associated with a country’s overall democratic score on the Democracy Index. Although the correlation coefficient for constitutional monarchies is marginally higher than it is for ceremonial parliamentary republics, it is interesting to note that latter system is associated with higher coefficients for a larger number of indicator categories. Table 3 breaks down these relationships by indicator.

Table 3. Pearson’s correlation coefficients for the relationships between systems of government and Democracy Index indicators. Relationships were statistically significant if greater than 0.199 or lower than -0.199.

When compared to constitutional monarchies, ceremonial parliamentary republics appear to be more strongly associated with three indicators: electoral process and pluralism, political participation, and civil liberties. Conversely, constitutional monarchies have a strong lead over parliamentary republics for scores in the functioning of government and political culture categories. Despite their respective advantages, both forms of government are clear leaders in the strengths of their democratic institutions.

I will be the first to admit that, in addition to the issues that others have raised about past Democracy Index reports, there are some limitations to my impromptu data study. First, my study included a number of semi-recognized entities (e.g. Palestine and Taiwan) while omitting around 30 UN member states. The coefficients I obtained could change if the Economist adds the remaining fully-recognized countries into the 2021 Democracy Index. Second, the evolving situations in countries suffering from armed and political conflicts may challenge the designation given to individual states in the list. These categories are valid as of March 14, but they can change on a dime tomorrow.

The third (and most relevant) limitation of this study is that it simply identifies correlation rather than causation. I am not saying with confidence that Canada’s score is directly caused by constitutional monarchism or that it is guaranteed to erode under a US-style presidential system. However, I think the findings show that Canada’s current arrangement offers a number of democratic advantages — especially when it comes to the functioning of government.

The findings also raise questions for Canadian pollsters that frame the monarchy debate as a dichotomous “Queen vs. elected president” question. Surveyors should consider polling Canadians on their interest in switching to a German-style parliamentary republic with a figurehead president. Not only could such a system allow Canadian politics to not by plagued by American-style partisanship and deadlock, it could also foster similar levels of democratic performance that Canada currently enjoys as a constitutional monarchy.

* Hong Kong was omitted because it did not have an identified system of government from the list used in the study.

MSc graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) | Interests include Canadian and UK politics, transit, and health policy

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