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Basic forms of Government
Source of power
Democracy (rule by many)
Oligarchy (rule by few)
Autocracy (rule by one)
Anarchism (rule by none)
Power ideology
Monarchy - Republic
Authoritarian - Libertarian
Religious - Secular
Global - Local
Power structure
International relations
Administrative division

A dictatorship is a form of government which is characterized by a leader, or a group of leaders, which holds governmental powers with few to no limitations on them. The leader of a dictatorship is called a dictator. Politics in a dictatorship are controlled by the dictator and facilitated through an inner circle of elites that include advisers, generals, and other high-ranking officials. The dictator maintains control by influencing and appeasing the inner circle while repressing any opposition, which may include rival political parties, armed resistance, or disloyal members of the inner circle. Dictatorships can be formed by a military coup that overthrows the previous government through force or by a self-coup in which elected leaders make their rule permanent. Dictatorships are authoritarian or totalitarian and can be classified as military dictatorships, one-party dictatorships, personalist dictatorships, or absolute monarchies.

The term dictatorship originates from its use in the Roman Republic. The earliest military dictatorships developed in the post-classical era, particularly in Shogun-era Japan. Modern dictatorships first developed in the nineteenth century, which included Bonapartism in Europe and caudillos in Latin America. The twentieth century saw the rise of fascist and communist dictatorships in Europe. Fascism was eradicated in the aftermath of World War II in 1945, while communism spread to other continents, maintaining prominence until the end of the Cold War in 1991. The twentieth century also saw the rise of personalist dictatorships in Africa and military dictatorships in Latin America, both of which became prominent in the 1960s and 1970s. Several dictatorships have persisted into the twenty-first century, particularly in Africa and Asia.

Dictatorships frequently hold elections in order to establish their legitimacy or provide incentives to members of the ruling party, but these elections are not competitive for the opposition. Stability in a dictatorship is maintained through coercion and political repression, which involves the restriction of access to information, the tracking of the political opposition, and acts of violence. Because dictatorships serve the interests of the few and are not answerable to the people, those that fail to repress the opposition are susceptible to collapse through a coup or a revolution.


The power structures of dictatorships vary, and different definitions of dictatorship consider different elements of this structure. Political scientists such as Juan José Linz and Samuel P. Huntington identify key attributes that define the power structure of a dictatorship, including a single leader or a small group of leaders, the exercise of power with few limitations, limited political pluralism, and limited mass mobilization.[1]

The dictator exercises broad power over the government and society, but other individuals are necessary to carry out the dictator's rule. These individuals form an inner circle, making up a class of elites that hold a degree of power within the dictatorship and receive benefits in exchange for their support. They may be military officers, party members, friends and family of the dictator, or the ethnic group that the dictator represents. Elites are also the primary political threats of a dictator, as they can leverage their power to influence or overthrow the dictatorship. The inner circle's support is necessary for a dictator's orders to be carried out, causing elites to serve as a check on the dictator's power. To enact policy, a dictator must either appease the regime's elites or attempt to replace them.[2] Elites must also compete with each other to wield power, but the amount of power held by elites also depends on their unity. Factions or divisions among the elites will mitigate their ability to bargain with the dictator, resulting in the dictator having more unrestrained power. A unified inner circle has the capacity to overthrow a dictator, and the dictator must make greater concessions to the inner circle to stay in power. This is particularly true when the inner circle is made up of military officers that have the resources to carry out a military coup.[3]

The opposition to a dictatorship represents all of the factions that are not part of the dictatorship and anyone that does not support the regime. Organized opposition is a threat to the stability of a dictatorship, as it seeks to undermine public support for the dictator and calls for regime change. A dictator may address the opposition by repressing it through force, modifying laws to restrict its power, or appeasing it with limited benefits.[4] The opposition can be an external group, or it can also include current and former members of the dictator's inner circle.[5]

Totalitarianism is a form of dictatorship characterized by the presence of a single political party and more specifically, by a powerful leader who imposes personal and political prominence. Power is wielded through a collaboration between the government and a highly developed ideology. A totalitarian government has "total control of mass communications and social and economic organizations."[6] Political philosopher Hannah Arendt describes totalitarianism as a new and extreme form of dictatorship composed of "atomized, isolated individuals" in which ideology plays a leading role in defining how the entire society should be organized.[7] Political scientist Juan José Linz identifies a spectrum of political systems with democracies and totalitarian regimes separated by authoritarian regimes with varied classifications of hybrid systems.[8]He describes totalitarian regimes as exercising control over politics and political mobilization rather than merely suppressing it.


Benito Mussolini in the March on Rome that installed him as dictator in Italy

A dictatorship is formed when a specific group seizes power, with the composition of this group affecting how power is seized and how the eventual dictatorship will rule. The group may be military or political, it may be organized or disorganized, and it may disproportionately represent a certain demographic. After power is seized, the group must determine what positions its members will hold in the new government and how this government will operate, sometimes resulting in disagreements that split the group. Disaffected members either withdraw or are sometimes persecuted, jailed or executed. Members of the group will typically make up the elites in a dictator's inner circle at the beginning of a new dictatorship, though the dictator may remove them as a means to gain additional power.[9]

Unless they have undertaken a self-coup, those seizing power typically have little governmental experience and do not have a detailed policy plan in advance. If the dictator has not seized power through a political party, then a party may be formed as a mechanism to reward supporters and to concentrate power in the hands of political allies instead of militant allies. Parties formed after the seizure of power often have little influence and only exist to serve the dictator.[10]

Most dictatorships are formed through military means or through a political party. Nearly half of dictatorships start as a military coup, though others have been started by foreign intervention, elected officials ending competitive elections, insurgent takeovers, popular uprisings by citizens, or legal maneuvering by autocratic elites to take power within their government. Dictatorships can be inherently unstable. Between 1946 and 2010, 42% of dictatorships began by overthrowing a different dictatorship. Another 26% began after achieving independence from a foreign government. Many others developed following a period of warlordism.[11]

Types of dictatorship

A classification of dictatorships, which began with political scientist Barbara Geddes in 1999, focuses on where power lies. Under this system, there are three types of dictatorships. Military dictatorships are controlled by military officers, one-party dictatorships are controlled by the leadership of a political party, and personalist dictatorships are controlled by a single individual. In some circumstances, monarchies are also considered dictatorships if the monarchs hold a significant amount of political power. Hybrid dictatorships are regimes that have a combination of these classifications.[12]


Soldiers occupy Seoul, South Korea as part of the May 16 coup that placed General Park Chung-hee in power

Military dictatorships are regimes in which military officers hold power, determine who will lead the country, and exercise influence over policy.[13] They are most common in developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They are often unstable, and the average duration of a military dictatorship is only five years, but they are often followed by another military coup and military dictatorship. While common in the twentieth century, the prominence of military dictatorships declined in the 1970s and 1980s.[14]

Military dictatorships are typically formed by a military coup in which senior officers use the military to overthrow the government. In democracies, the threat of a military coup is associated with the period immediately after a democracy's creation but prior to large-scale military reforms. In oligarchies, the threat of a military coup comes from the strength of the military weighed against the concessions made to the military. Other factors associated with military coups include extensive natural resources, limited use of the military internationally, and use of the military as an oppressive force domestically.[15] Military coups do not necessarily result in military dictatorships, as power may then be passed to an individual or the military may allow democratic elections to take place.

Military dictatorships often have traits in common due to the shared military background of the dictators. These dictators may view themselves as impartial in their oversight of a country due to their nonpartisan status, and they may view themselves as "guardians of the state." The predominance of violent force in military training manifests in an acceptance of violence as a political tool and the ability to organize violence on a large scale. Military dictators may also be less trusting or diplomatic and underestimate the use of bargaining and compromise in politics.[16]


An assembly at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses in Moscow, Soviet Union

One-party dictatorships are governments in which a single political party dominates politics. Single-party dictatorships are one-party states in which only the party in power is legalized and all opposition parties are banned. Dominant-party dictatorships or electoral authoritarian dictatorships are one-party dictatorships in which opposition parties are nominally legal but cannot meaningfully influence government. Single-party dictatorships were most common during the Cold War, with dominant-party dictatorships becoming more common after the fall of the Soviet Union.[17] Ruling parties in one-party dictatorships are distinct from political parties that were created to serve a dictator in that the ruling party in a one-party dictatorship permeates every level of society.

One-party dictatorships tend to be more stable than other forms of authoritarian rule and are less susceptible to insurgency. Ruling parties create party functionaries throughout society, allowing a dictatorship to more broadly influence the populace and facilitate political agreement between party elites. Between 1950 and 2016, one-party dictatorships made up 57% of authoritarian regimes in the world, and one-party dictatorships have continued to expand more quickly than other forms of dictatorship in the latter half of the twentieth century. Due to the structure of their leadership, one-party dictatorships are significantly less likely to face civil conflict, insurgency, or terrorism than other forms of dictatorship.[18] The use of ruling parties also provides more legitimacy to its leadership and elites than other forms of dictatorship and facilitates a peaceful transfer of power at the end of a dictator's rule.[19]

One-party dictatorships became prominent in Asia and Eastern Europe during the Cold War as communist revolutions installed one-party governments in several countries. One-party rule also developed in several countries in Africa during decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which produced authoritarian regimes.[20] A ruling party in a one-party dictatorship may rule under any ideology or it may have no guiding ideology. Marxist one-party states are sometimes distinguished from other one-party states, but they function similarly.[21] When a one-party dictatorship develops gradually through legal means, in can result in conflict between the party organization and the state apparatus and civil service, as the party rules in parallel and increasingly appoints its own members to positions of power. Parties that take power through violence are often able to implement larger changes in a shorter period of time,[22] but generally at a higher cost in lives lost.


Citizens of North Korea bow to statues of former dictators Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in 2012.

Personalist dictatorships are regimes in which all power lies in the hands of a single individual. They differ from other forms of dictatorships in that the dictator has greater access to key political positions and the government's treasury, and they are more commonly subject to the discretion of the dictator. Personalist dictators may be members of the military or leaders of a political party, but neither the military nor the party exercises power independently from the dictator. In personalist dictatorships, the elite corps are usually made up of close friends or family members of the dictator, who typically handpicks these individuals to serve their posts.[23] These dictatorships often emerge either from loosely organized seizures of power, giving the leader opportunity to consolidate power, or from democratically elected leaders in countries with weak institutions, giving the leader opportunity to change the constitution. Personalist dictatorships are more common in Sub-Saharan Africa due to less established institutions in the region.[24]

Personalist dictators typically favor loyalty over competence in their governments and have a general distrust of intelligentsia. Elites in personalist dictatorships often do not have a professional political career and are unqualified for positions they are given. A personalist dictator will manage these appointees by segmenting the government so that they cannot collaborate. The result is that such regimes have no internal checks and balances, and are thus unrestrained when exerting repression on their people, making radical shifts in foreign policy, or starting wars with other countries.[25] Due to the lack of accountability and the smaller group of elites, personalist dictatorships are more prone to corruption than other forms of dictatorship, and they are more repressive than other forms of dictatorship.[26] Personalist dictatorships often collapse with the death of the dictator. They are more likely to end in violence and less likely to democratize than other forms of dictatorship.[27]

The shift in the power relation between the dictator and their inner circle has severe consequences for the behavior of such regimes as a whole. Personalist regimes diverge from other regimes in longevity, methods of breakdown, levels of corruption, and proneness to conflicts. On average, they last twice as long as military dictatorships, but not as long as one-party dictatorships.[28] Personalist dictatorships also experience growth differently, as they often lack the institutions or qualified leadership to sustain an economy.[25]

Absolute monarchy

King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia with two of his sons.

An absolute monarchy is a monarchy in which the monarch rules without legal limitations. This makes it distinct from constitutional monarchy and ceremonial monarchy. In an absolute monarchy, power is limited to the royal family, and legitimacy is established by historical factors. In the modern era, absolute monarchies are most common in the Middle East.[29] Montesquieu made a distinction between despots that ruled unrestrained and monarchs that ruled within the laws of a kingdom. Political parties are relatively rare in monarchic dictatorships compared to military or civilian dictatorships.[30] Monarchies may be dynastic, in which the royal family serves as a ruling institution similar to a political party in a one-party state, or they may be non-dynastic, in which the monarch rules independently of the royal family as a personalist dictator. Monarchies allow for strict rules of succession that produce a peaceful transfer of power on the monarch's death, but this can also result in succession disputes if multiple members of the royal family claim a right to succeed.[31]


Early dictatorships

Military dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna wearing a Mexican military uniform[32]

Dictatorship is historically associated with the Ancient Greek concept of tyranny, and several ancient Greek rulers have been described as "tyrants" that are comparable to modern dictators.[33] The concept of "dictator" was first developed during the Roman Republic. A Roman dictator was a special magistrate that was temporarily appointed by the consul during times of crisis and granted total executive authority. The role of dictator was created for instances when a single leader was needed to command and restore stability. At least 85 such dictators were chosen over the course of the Roman Republic, the last of which was chosen to wage the Second Punic War. The dictatorship was revived 120 years later by Sulla after his crushing of a populist movement, and 33 years after that by Julius Caesar.[34] Caesar subverted the tradition of temporary dictatorships when he was made dictator perpetuo, or a dictator for life, which led to the creation of the Roman Empire.[35] The rule of a dictator was not necessarily considered tyrannical in Ancient Rome, though it has been described in some accounts as a "temporary tyranny" or an "elective tyranny."[36]

Asia saw several military dictatorships during the post-classical era. Korea experienced military dictatorships under the rule of Yeon Gaesomun in the seventh century[37] and under the rule of the Goryeo military regime in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Shoguns were de facto military dictators in Japan beginning in 1185 and continuing for over six hundred years.[38] During the Lê dynasty of Vietnam between the 16th and 18th centuries, the country was under de facto military rule by two rival military families: the Trịnh lords in the north and the Nguyễn lords in the south.[39] In Europe, the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell, formed in 1649 after the Second English Civil War, has been described as a military dictatorship by its contemporary opponents and by some modern academics.[40][41] Maximilien Robespierre has been similarly described as a dictator while he controlled the National Convention in France and conducted the Reign of Terror in 1793 and 1794.[42]

Dictatorship developed as a major form of government in the nineteenth century, though the concept was not universally seen pejoratively at the time, with both a tyrannical concept and a quasi-constitutional concept of dictatorship understood to exist.[43] In Europe it was often thought of as either Bonapartism or Caesarism. The former describes the military rule of Napoleon and the latter describes the imperial rule of Napoleon III in the vein of Julius Caesar.[44] The Spanish American wars of independence took place in the early-nineteenth century, creating many new Latin American governments. Many of these governments fell under the control of caudillos, or personalist dictators. Most caudillos came from a military background, and their rule was typically associated with pageantry and glamor. Caudillos were often nominally constrained by a constitution, but the caudillo had the power to draft a new constitution as he wished. Many are noted for their cruelty, while others are honored as national heroes.[45]

Interwar dictatorships


The Nuremberg rallies celebrated fascism and the rule of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany.[46]

In the socio-economic struggles between World War I and World War II, several dictatorships were established in Europe through coups which were carried out by far-left and far-right movements. The aftermath of World War I resulted in a major shift in European politics, establishing new governments, facilitating internal change in older governments, and redrawing the boundaries between countries, allowing opportunities for these movements to seize power.[47] The societal upheaval caused by World War I and the unstable peace it produced further contributed to instability that benefited extremist movements and rallied support for their causes. Far-left and far-right dictatorships used similar methods to maintain power, including cult of personality, concentration camps, forced labor, mass murder, and genocide.[48]

The first communist state was created by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks with the establishment of Soviet Russia during the Russian Revolution in 1917. The government was described as a dictatorship of the proletariat in which power was exercised by soviets. The Bolsheviks consolidated power by 1922, forming the Soviet Union. Lenin was followed by Joseph Stalin in 1924, who consolidated total power and implemented totalitarian rule by 1929.[49] The Russian Revolution inspired a wave of left-wing revolutionary movements in Europe between 1917 and 1923, but none saw the same level of success.[50]

At the same time, nationalist movements grew throughout Europe. These movements were a response to what they perceived as decadence and societal decay due to the changing social norms and race relations brought about by liberalism.[51] Fascism developed in Europe as a rejection of liberalism, socialism, and modernism. The first fascist political parties formed in the 1920s.[52] Italian dictator Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922, and began implementing reforms in 1925 to create the first fascist dictatorship. These reforms incorporated totalitarianism, fealty to the state, expansionism, corporatism, and anti-communism.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party created a second fascist dictatorship in Germany in 1933, obtaining absolute power through a combination of electoral victory, violence, and emergency powers.[53] Other nationalist movements in Europe established dictatorships based on the fascist model. During World War II, Italy and Germany occupied several countries in Europe, imposing fascist puppet states upon many of the countries that they invaded.[54] After their defeat in World War II, the fascist dictatorships of Europe collapsed, with the exceptions of Spain and Portugal. The Soviet Union occupied nationalist dictatorships in the east and replaced them with communist dictatorships, while the Western Bloc established liberal democratic governments.

Latin America

Dictatorships in Latin America persisted into the twentieth century, as yet further military coups established new regimes, often in the name of nationalism. After a brief period of democratization, Latin America underwent a rapid transition toward dictatorship in the 1930s.[55] Populist movements were strengthened following the economic turmoil of the Great Depression, producing populist dictatorships in several Latin American countries.[56] European fascism was imported to Latin America as well, and the Vargas Era of Brazil was heavily influenced by the corporatism practiced in fascist Italy.

Cold War dictatorships


A communist rally in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the country's period of Marxist dictatorship, the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

The decolonization of Africa prompted the creation of new governments, many of which became dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. Early African dictatorships were primarily personalist socialist dictatorships, in which a single socialist would take power instead of a ruling party. As the Cold War continued, the Soviet Union increased its influence in Africa, and Marxist–Leninist dictatorships developed in several African countries.[57] Military coups were also a common occurrence after decolonization, with 14 African countries experiencing at least three successful military coups between 1959 and 2001.[58] These new African governments were marked by severe instability, which provided opportunities for regime change and made fair elections a rare occurrence on the continent. This instability in turn required rulers to become increasingly authoritarian to remain in power, further propagating dictatorship in Africa.[59]


The Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, splitting the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Mao established the People's Republic of China as a one-party communist state under his governing ideology of Maoism. While the People's Republic of China was initially aligned with the Soviet Union, relations between the two countries deteriorated as the Soviet Union underwent de-Stalinization in the late-1950s. Mao consolidated his control of the People's Republic of China with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, which involved the destruction of all elements of capitalism and traditionalism in China.[60] Deng Xiaoping took power as the de facto leader of China after Mao's death and implemented reforms to restore stability following the Cultural Revolution and reestablish free market economics.[61] Chiang Kai-shek continued to rule as dictator of the National government in Taiwan until his death in 1975.[62]

Marxist and nationalist movements became popular in Southeast Asia in response to colonial control and the subsequent Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, with both ideologies facilitating the creation of dictatorships after World War II. Communist dictatorships in the region aligned with China following the latter's establishment as a communist state.[63] A similar phenomenon took place in Korea, where Kim Il-sung created a Soviet-backed communist dictatorship in North Korea[64] and Syngman Rhee created a US-backed nationalist dictatorship in South Korea.[65] While South Korea ultimately reformed into a democracy, the North Korean communist dictatorship became a hybrid personalist/one-party state dictatorship. It became the first hereditary communist state as dictatorial power was passed down from Kim Il-Sung to his son, Kim Jong-Il who passed it to his son, Kim Jong-Un. (Later, in 2011, Fidel Castro would pass dictatorial power to his brother, Raúl, but he did not wield the same power as Fidel, and the Cuban communist party ultimately replaced him in 2021 with Miguel Díaz-Canel, a non-Castro, as the party reasserted its authority over the government.)

The Middle East was decolonized during the Cold War, and many nationalist movements gained strength post-independence. These nationalist movements supported non-alignment, keeping most Middle Eastern dictatorships out of the American and Soviet spheres of influence. These movements supported pan-Arab Nasserism during most of the Cold War, but they were largely replaced by Islamic nationalism by the 1980s. Several Middle Eastern countries were the subject of military coups in the 1950s and 1960s, including Iraq, Syria, North Yemen, and South Yemen.[66] A 1953 coup overseen by the American and British governments restored Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the absolute monarch of Iran, who in turn was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that established Ruhollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader of Iran under an Islamist government.[67]


During World War II, many countries of Central and Eastern Europe had been occupied by the Soviet Union. When the war ended, these countries were incorporated into the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet sphere of influence. The Soviet Union installed puppet regimes and exercised control over their governments.[68] Josip Broz Tito declared a communist government in Yugoslavia during World War II, which was initially aligned with the Soviet Union. The relations between the countries were strained by Soviet attempts to influence Yugoslavia, leading to the Tito–Stalin split in 1948. Albania was established as a communist dictatorship under Enver Hoxha in 1944. It was initially aligned with Yugoslavia, but its alignment shifted throughout the Cold War between Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and China.[69] The stability of the Soviet Union weakened in the 1980s. The Soviet economy became unsustainable, and communist governments lost the support of intellectuals. In 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would no longer use military force to back its client states in Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall was torn down, and communism was abandoned by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe through a series of revolutions. After an aborted coup against Gorbachev, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved in 1991.[70]

Latin America

Military dictatorships remained prominent in Latin America during the Cold War, though the number of coups declined starting in the 1980s. Between 1967 C.E. 1991, 12 Latin American countries underwent at least one military coup. Haiti and Honduras experienced three while Bolivia experienced eight.[71] A one-party communist dictatorship was formed in Cuba when a US-backed dictatorship was overthrown in the Cuban Revolution, creating the only Soviet-backed dictatorship in the western hemisphere.[72] To maintain power, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet organized Operation Condor with other South American dictators to facilitate cooperation between their respective intelligence agencies and secret police organizations.[73]

Twenty-first century dictatorships

The nature of dictatorship changed in much of the world at the onset of the twenty-first century. Between the 1990s and the 2000s, most dictators moved away from being "larger-than-life figures" that controlled the populace through terror and isolated themselves from the global community. This was replaced by a trend of developing a positive public image to maintain support among the populace and moderating rhetoric to integrate with the global community.[74] The development of the internet and digital communication in the twenty-first century have prompted dictatorships to shift from traditional means of control to digital ones, including the use of artificial intelligence to analyze mass communications, internet censorship to restrict the flow of information, and troll farms to manipulate public opinion.[75]

Dictatorship in Europe largely ended after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the liberalization of most communist states.[70] Belarus under the rule of Alexander Lukashenko has been described as "the last European dictatorship,"[76] though the rule of Vladimir Putin in Russia has also been described as a dictatorship.[77] Putin's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 indicates his power and control over Russian politics.

Latin America saw a period of liberalization similar to that of Europe at the end of the Cold War. With the exception of Cuba, Latin American countries experienced a degree of liberalization between 1992 and 2010.[78] The countries of Central Asia did not liberalize after the fall of the Soviet Union, instead reforming as dictatorships led by former elites of the Communist Party and then later by successive dictators. These countries maintain parliaments and human rights organizations, but under the control of the respective dictators.[79]

The Middle East and Northern Africa did not undergo liberalization during the third wave of democratization, and most countries in this region remain dictatorships in the twenty-first century. Dictatorships in the Middle East and Northern Africa are either illiberal republics in which a president holds power through rigged elections, or they are absolute monarchies in which power is inherited. Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine are the only democratic nations in the region. Israel is the only nation in this region that affords broad political liberties to its citizens.[80] Dictatorships in the Middle East are primarily guided by Islamic nationalism.[67]


One of the tasks of political science is to measure and classify regimes as either democracies or dictatorship (authoritarian) countries. Freedom House, the Polity data series, and the Democracy-Dictatorship Index are three of the most used data series by political scientists.[81] Generally, two research approaches exist: the minimalist approach, which focuses on whether a country has continued elections that are competitive, and the substantive approach, which expands the concept of democracy to include human rights, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The Democracy-Dictatorship Index is seen as an example of the minimalist approach, while the Polity data series is more substantive.[82]


Most dictatorships exist in countries with high levels of poverty. Poverty has a destabilizing effect on government, causing democracy to fail and regimes to fail more often. The form of government does not correlate with the amount of economic growth, and dictatorships on average grow at the same rate as democracies, though dictatorships have been found to have larger fluctuations. Dictators are more likely to implement long-term investments into the country's economy if they feel secure in their power. Exceptions to the pattern of poverty in dictatorships include oil-rich Middle Eastern dictatorships and the East Asian Tigers during their periods of dictatorship.[83]

The type of economy in a dictatorship can affect how it functions. Economies based on natural resources allow dictators more power, as they can easily extract rents without strengthening or cooperating with other institutions. More complex economies require additional cooperation between the dictator and other groups. The economic focus of a dictatorship often depends on the strength of the opposition, as a weaker opposition allows a dictator to extract additional wealth from the economy through corruption.[30]

Legitimacy and stability

Several factors determine the stability of a dictatorship, and they must maintain some degree of popular support to prevent resistance groups from forming and growing. One factor is the use of incentives, such as distribution of financial resources or promises of security. Another approach is repression for failing to support the regime. Stability can be weakened when opposition groups grow and unify or when elites are not loyal to the regime. One-party dictatorships are generally more stable and last longer than military or personalist dictatorships.[17]

A dictatorship may fall because of a military coup, foreign intervention, negotiation, or popular revolution. A military coup is often carried out when a regime is threatening the country's stability or during periods of societal unrest. Foreign intervention takes place when another country seeks to topple a regime by invading the country or supporting the opposition. A dictator may negotiate the end of a regime if it has lost legitimacy or if a violent removal seems likely. Revolution takes place when the opposition group grows large enough that elites in the regime cannot or choose not to suppress it.[84] Negotiated removals are more likely to end in democracy, while removals by force are more likely to result in a new dictatorial regime. A dictator that has concentrated significant power is more likely to be exiled, imprisoned, or killed after ouster, and accordingly they are more likely to refuse negotiation and cling to power.[85]

Dictatorships are typically more aggressive than democracy when in conflict with other nations, as dictators do not have to fear the electoral costs of war. Military dictatorships are more prone to conflict due to the inherent military strength associated with such a regime, and personalist dictatorships are more prone to conflict due to the weaker institutions to check the dictator's power.[86] In the twenty-first century, dictatorships have moved toward greater integration with the global community and increasingly attempt to present themselves as democratic.[74] Dictatorships are often recipients of foreign aid on the condition that they make advances toward democratization.[87] A study found that dictatorships that engage in oil drilling are more likely to remain in power, with 70.63% of the dictators who engage in oil drilling still in power after 5 years, while only 59.92% of the non-oil producing dictators survive the first 5 years.[88]


An electoral slip in the 1936 German parliamentary election. Adolf Hitler and his inner circle are the only option.

Most dictatorships hold elections to maintain legitimacy and stability, but these elections are typically uncompetitive and the opposition is not permitted to win. Elections allow a dictatorship to exercise some control over the opposition by setting the terms under which the opposition challenges the regime. Elections are also used to control elites within the dictatorship by requiring them to compete with one another and incentivizing them to build support with the populace, allowing the most popular and most competent elites to be promoted in the regime. Elections also support the legitimacy of a dictatorship by presenting the image of a democracy, establishing plausible deniability of its status as a dictatorship for both the populace and foreign governments. Should a dictatorship fail, elections also permit dictators and elites to accept defeat without fearing violent recourse. Dictatorships may influence the results of an election through electoral fraud, intimidation or bribing of candidates and voters, use of state resources such as media control, manipulation of electoral laws, restricting who may run as a candidate, or disenfranchising demographics that may oppose the dictatorship.[89]

In the twentieth century, most dictatorships held elections in which voters could only choose to support the dictatorship, with only one-quarter of partisan dictatorships permitting opposition candidates to participate. Since the end of the Cold War, more dictatorships have established "semi-competitive" elections in which opposition is allowed to participate in elections but is not allowed to win, with approximately two-thirds of dictatorships permitting opposition candidates in 2018. Opposition parties in dictatorships may be restricted by preventing them from campaigning, banning more popular opposition parties, preventing opposition members from forming a party, or requiring that candidates be a member of the ruling party. Dictatorships may hold semi-competitive elections to qualify for foreign aid, to demonstrate a dictator's control over the government, or to incentivize the party to expand its information-gathering capacity, particularly at the local level. Semi-competitive elections also have the effect of incentivizing members of the ruling party to provide better treatment of citizens so they will be chosen as party nominees due to their popularity.[90]


In a dictatorship, violence is used to coerce or repress all opposition to the dictator's rule, and the strength of a dictatorship depends on its use of violence. This violence is frequently exercised through institutions such as military or police forces. The use of violence by a dictator is frequently most severe during the first few years of a dictatorship, because the regime has not yet solidified its rule and more detailed information for targeted coercion is not yet available. As the dictatorship becomes more established, it moves away from violence by resorting to the use of other coercive measures, such as restricting people's access to information and tracking the political opposition. Dictators are incentivized to avoid the use of violence once a reputation of violence is established, as it damages the dictatorship's other institutions and poses a threat to the dictator's rule should government forces become disloyal.

Institutions that coerce the opposition through the use of violence may serve different roles or they may be used to counterbalance one another in order to prevent one institution from becoming too powerful. Secret police are used to gather information about specific political opponents and carry out targeted acts of violence against them, paramilitary forces defend the regime from coups, and formal militaries defend the dictatorship during foreign invasions and major civil conflicts.[91]

Terrorism is less common in dictatorships, although in multi-ethnic states with minorities that feel oppressed, terrorism is more likely. Allowing the opposition to have representation in the regime, such as through a legislature, further reduces the likelihood of terrorist attacks in a dictatorship.[92] Military and one-party dictatorships are more likely to experience terrorism than personalist dictatorships, as these regimes are under more pressure to undergo institutional change in response to terrorism.[93]

See also


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ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Further reading

  • Behrends, Jan C. "Dictatorship: Modern Tyranny Between Leviathan and Behemoth (Version 2.0) (english version)," Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte (March 14, 2017). Retrieved January 25, 2023.
  • Dikötter, Frank. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2019, ISBN 978-1635573800. scholarly analysis of Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, as well as Kim Il-sung of North Korea; François Duvalier, or Papa Doc, of Haiti; Nicolae Ceaușescu of Romania; and Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia.
  • Dobson, William J. The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy. Harpswell, ME: Anchor, 2013. ISBN 978-0307477552
  • Fraenkel, Ernst, and Jens Meierhenrich. The Dual State: A Contribution to the Theory of Dictatorship. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0191025334
  • Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy 2nd. ed. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1965. ISBN 978-0674332591
  • Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, and Alastair Smith. The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. New York, NY: Random House, 2011. ISBN 978-1610390446


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