Civilian governments, as opposed to military governments, are defined by who has the monopoly over state violence – that is, armed forces. In a civilian government associated with liberal democracies, the military is subordinate to elected leaders. However, in authoritarian forms of government, armed forces are controlled either by the military itself (such as the former Burmese junta) or by a family based on hereditary rule (such as the Saudi monarchy) or by an elite cabal belonging to a single party (such as the politburo in China).
In general, civilian governments empower citizens to select leaders; demonstrate greater transparency; are less likely to violate human rights; and support both free speech and free press.
A Democratic System of Governance
The defining characteristic of a democratic system is the right of the people to chose their rulers. Civilian governments uphold two central principles of democracies: participation and contestation. Free and fair elections allow people to participate by voting to choose their rulers, and those campaigning to run a public office can contest elections. By contrast, under military rule, closed door decisions made by top-ranking generals determine the leadership of government.
Accountable and Transparent
A civilian government is accountable to an independent judiciary and parliament. They must submit the government’s proposed budget every year for parliament’s approval. This ensures that the government spends available resources in a way that benefits the maximum number of people. At the same time, the government must disclose full information about its activities, although today, governments increasingly cite security concerns as an excuse to become more opaque.
Respect for Human Rights
A civilian government, because it is chosen in elections, does not need to forcibly suppress the opposition. A military government, however, resorts to physical violence to stifle any dissent. Physical violence such as torture and killing is the most pernicious example of human rights abuses. Lesser forms of abuse may be persecution, intimidation and unlawful detention.
Freedom of Speech
A civilian government is more amenable to freedom of speech and a free press than a military government. However, there are boundaries around freedom of speech, be they implicit cultural boundaries or explicit constitutional boundaries. Even in liberal democracies, the degree of freedom of speech during times of war – usually when the military has the most influence over the government – is lower than during times of peace. However, regardless of the security situation inside the country, military rules are notorious for forbidding free speech. For example, the government of North Korea severely restricts both free speech and free press.