What is a Dictatorship?
A dictatorship is a type of government in which a single person—the dictator—or party has absolute power. This means that the ruler or party has complete control. The rights of the people are typically suppressed in a dictatorship, sometimes to a great degree.
Dictators are usually backed (especially financially) by groups of powerful people. Typically, dictators rise to power when a nation faces significant social issues, such as strong economic crises or unrest among the nation's people.
Dictators typically retain their power by silencing any opposition to their rulings and guidelines. This is often done via questionable means, including intimidation, imprisonment (lawful or not), physical violence, or even assassination.
Dictatorships have shallow levels of freedom. Although it is true that some dictators are far more strict and overbearing than others, as a rule, dictatorships tend to result in a loss of personal autonomy, quality of life, and political choice for everyday citizens. Negative effects include the unraveling of social organizations and democratic institutions and the prohibition of other political parties.
When necessary, a dictator may also make an effort to replace or amend the nation's constitution to empower, enrich, or otherwise benefit the dictator and his/her allies to a greater degree. An appropriate example of this occurred in 2020 when Russian president Vladimir Putin and his party introduced amendments to the country's constitution that reworked term limits, enabling Putin to remain in power until 2036.
People living under a dictatorship are often persecuted for unethical reasons, including their religion, sexual orientation, or economic status. Dictators often employ illegal and/or immoral methods to maintain their power and control, including the use of secret police, indefinite arrests, and concentration camps.
The Five Kinds of Dictatorship
The type of dictatorship a country is ruled by typically comes down to the methods the dictator used to obtain power and how they go about maintaining it.
In their book "Dictators and Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders", authors Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz lay out five types of dictatorships:
1. Military dictatorship:
Power is obtained and maintained through military might. The military takes control of the country (usually through a direct coup), installs the dictator of its choosing (typically the highest-ranking military officer), and uses force of arms to preserve its power.
Power is obtained and passed on through family connections. An autocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.
3. Personalistic dictatorships:
The leader may be supported by a party or military, but still retains the overwhelming majority of power, especially regarding whom to place in which governmental roles, and relies heavily upon their own charisma to maintain control. Leaders of these dictatorships often place those loyal to them in positions of power (qualified or not), and foster cults of personality to sway public opinion to their side. Like most dictators, they also often employ secret police and violence to silence critics.
4. Single party dictatorships:
Also called a dominant party dictatorship or one-party state. Multiple political parties may exist, but one dominates the government, makes all the rules, is free to disseminate propaganda, and controls every aspect of every election (which may offer voters only a single candidate), thereby ensuring they win every time. After authoritarian monarchies, these tend to be the longest-lasting dictatorships, as they can more easily install a new dictator if the existing one leaves office (rare) or dies.
5. Hybrid dictatorships:
Hybrid dictatorships blend elements of the other four types. Examples include the Personalist/Military dictatorship of Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 and the Single-Party/Military hybrid that controlled El Salvador from 1948 to 1984.
What Life is Like in a Country Ruled by a Dictatorship
Dictatorships suffer from an obvious and significant imbalance of power. One person holds all of the country's power. Therefore, the entire country operates on the whims of that one person. A dictator may have a team of officials who advise him or her and help keep the government running, but these officials ultimately have very little control or influence. On a similar note, a dictatorship's regular citizens have no voice in most matters. The dictator is the absolute ruler.
From the outside looking in, life within a dictatorship appears akin to being in a toxic relationship or living situation. However, many people in long-running dictatorships such as North Korea and Cameroon have never experienced anything else, so living in a dictatorship is much less jarring and shocking to them. Dictatorships seem much more extreme and unethical to people who enjoy the privilege of an outside perspective.
The Countries with Dictatorships in the Modern World
Africa has several long-standing dictators despite the fact that the continent as a whole is quite volatile politically. In the last six years alone, at least 26 African countries have experienced transfers of power. Unfortunately, democracy is still shaky in many countries, a number of which are fighting violent religious insurrections, and the likelihood of any fallen dictator being quickly replaced by another dictator is high.
There are currently 22 dictators in Africa, some worse than others. Some have been in power for decades, such as President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial New Guinea. President Obiang gained power in 1979 after ousting his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, and sentencing him to death by firing squad. His wealth is estimated to be approximately $600 million. This is thanks to an oil boom that enriched his family at the expense of the Equatorial Guinea citizens. Obiang's regime is known for state-sanctioned kidnappings, torture of prisoners, and unlawful killings. A political rival accused Obiang of cannibalism in 2004, but no evidence to support the claim has ever surfaced.
Dictators Around the World
The leaders of dictatorships are not outwardly identified as dictators when other people are addressing them. In fact, most dictators adopt common appellations such as "President" or "Prime Minister", so they must be identified via their actions and policies rather than their title.
- President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai of Afghanistan
- President Abdelmadjid Tebboune of Algeria
- President João Lourenço of Angola
- President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan
- King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain
- Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh
- President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus
- Sultan Haji Waddaulah of Brunei
- President Évariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi
- Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia
- President Paul Biya of Cameroon
- President Faustin Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic
- President Idriss Deby of Chad
- President Xi Jinping of China
- President Félix Tshilombo Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
- President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo
- President Miguel Diaz-Canel of Cuba
- President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh of Djibouti
- President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt
- President Teodoro Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea
- President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea
- Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia
- President Albert-Bernard Bongo of Gabon
- Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran
- President Barham Salih of Iraq
- President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan
- President Bounnhang Vorachith of Laos
- President Nouri Abusahmain of Libya
- President Win Myint of Myanmar
- President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua
- President Kim Jong-un of North Korea
- Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al-Said of Oman
- Emir Tamin Al Thani of Qatar
- President Vladimir Putin of Russia
- President Paul Kagame of Rwanda
- King Abdullah Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia
- President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia
- President Salva Kiir Mayardit of South Sudan
- President Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan of Sudan
- King Mswati III of Eswatini/Swaziland
- President Bashar al-Assad of Syria
- President Emomalii Rahmon of Tajikistan
- Chairman Losang Jamcan of Tibet
- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey
- President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedow of Turkmenistan
- President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda
- King Sheikh Khalifa Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates
- President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan
- President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela
- President Nguyễn Phú Trọng of Vietnam
- President Brahim Ghali of Western Sahara
- President Abd Al-Hadi of Yemen
Is China a dictatorship?
Given the degree of censorship and control China's government leverages over its citizens, most political experts would call it a dictatorship. China's constitution calls its government a "people's democratic dictatorship." This may sound like a contradiction of terms to many people. The premise of the "people's democratic dictatorship" is that the Chinese Party of China and the state represent and act on behalf of the people, but possess and may use powers against reactionary forces.
The People's Republic of China is currently ruled by President Xi Jinping, who also serves as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the country's Vice President, the President of the Central Party School, and the 1st ranked member of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee.
Is Russia a dictatorship?
Russia is a federal semi-presidential republic and an oligarchy. President Vladimir Putin is currently serving his fourth term as President of Russia. Despite repeated promises to leave office in 2024 (when his term limit is reached), Putin spearheaded a 2020 constitutional amendment enabling him to remain in power until 2036.
Whether or not Putin is a dictator is a matter of some debate. Those who believe that he is a dictator argue that he imprisons his opponents, removed freedom of speech—the press can only publish what he allows them to—and has restructured the government to give himself more and longer-lasting power. In addition to executive authority, Putin also holds judicial and legislative power, which enables him to change the law to fit his agenda.
Autocracy Countries (The difference between an Autocracy and a Dictatorship)
The terms "autocrat" and "autocracy" are often used interchangeably with "dictator" and "dictatorship". This is understandable, as the terms are very similar. Just like a dictatorship, an autocracy is a government headed by a single ruler (the autocrat) whose decisions are not subject to legal restraints and who exercises unlimited and undisputed power.
That said, there are two important differences between dictatorships and autocracies. First is that an autocracy nearly always focuses power in a single individual person, whereas dictatorships—single-party dictatorships in particular—sometimes spread the power throughout a small group of people (say, the leaders of the dictator's political party).
Secondly, while the term "dictatorship" is widely understood to include inherent abuse of power—there is arguably no such thing as a benevolent dictator—history offers several examples of autocrats who tried to do what was best for their people. Examples might include King Cyrus the Great of Persia, who is thought to have created the first declaration of human rights, the Biblical King Solomon, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yue.
While autocratic countries are not always malevolent, they often still encounter resistance from citizens who would prefer to have a greater say in the government's policy-making process.