Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


A dictatorship is a government headed by a dictator or more generally to any authoritarian or totalitarian government. It is often equivalent to a police state, but the term "dictatorship" refers to the way the leaders gain and hold power, not the watch kept on the citizens. Some dictators have been popular enough not to have to employ many very oppressive measures. The term generally has a pejorative meaning.

Originally a legitimate military office in the Roman Republic, the dictator was given his powers by the Senate (see Roman dictator). The dictator had absolute power, but for a limited time. This was initially intended to deal with some state of emergency. In modern times, claims of such states of emergenecy are often used to justify seizures of power and suspensions of civil rights.


In the 20th century, the term dictatorship has come to mean a form of government in which absolute power is concentrated in the hands of a dictator and sometimes his supporters; it can also refer to the consolidation of power by a single-party, military, head of state, or head of government.

Many dictators have held the formal title of "President", but wield extraordinary, often non-constitutional or de facto powers. Many also gain or continue to hold a military post - General Pinochet being an example.

The term has more loosely been applied to authoritarian or totalitarian governments, even when power within those governments is distributed among several people, and no one person within the government has extraordinary powers.

Types of dictatorships

Dictators can come to power in a variety of different ways. They can be elected (see below), be appointed by the resident ruling party or Communist Party hierarchy, or inherit their position from a deceased relative. Still other modern dictators seize power in a military coup d'état, and are supported by the military.

Often, a dictator creates what is known as a family dictatorship in which leadership of the country passes to the dictator's son, brother, or other realitve after his death. This makes the country into a sort of monarchy.

The dictator generally controls the three state powers: legislative, executive and judicial.

In a dictatorship, there are no regular, fair, and competative elections. There is usually some theory of civics advanced that involves "suspension" of these institutions, if they have existed, to rationalize the loss of democratic features.

Sometimes dictators can initially obtain power from democratic elections (like Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany), but shortly after being elected the dictator will ban all opposing parties and cancel all future elections (see human rights). Though free elections will never occur under a dictatorship, sometimes dictators orchestrate phony elections in an attempt to grant themselves some illusion of democratic legitimacy and public support. Usually, the dictator runs for "re-election" unopposed, with voters being asked to answer a simple "yes or no" ballot on the leader's continued rule. As can be expected, coercion and corruption usually plague such "elections" and dictators will often claim unrealistically high voter turnouts and results. Dictator Charles King of Liberia for example once claimed to have been "re-elected" by a majority that was more than 15% larger than his country's entire electorate and Saddam Hussein claimed 100% voter turnout in a ballot on his rule.

History of Dictatorship

For most of history dictatorship has been the most common form of rule. In early European history power was held by a variety of absolute monarchs who ruled their kingdoms with virtually unlimited powers. As the years went on, political liberalism began to spread, and so too did the rise of nation states, constitutions, and democracy. Monarchs lost most of their powers to elected assemblies and in some cases were abolished altogether, and replaced by republics. In several countries such reforms spiraled out of control, and amid the power vacuum created, certain leaders would arise out of the confusion and seize control. Following the French Revolution, for example, power was rapidly consolidated by future dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.

In the postwar period, the wave of de-colonization in Africa yielded many forms of non-democratic government, especially military dictatorships, in large measure due to the historical development of the colonial-state in several stages. Consolidation of the colonial-state rarely entailed strong institutionalization, regularization, and rationalization of colonial administration. For the most part, colonial administration relied on narrow support-bases, which essentially consisted of clientelistic networks of indigenous collaborators, in order reduce the cost of bureaucratic and military administration. In that vein, clientelism and favoritism dominated, as colonial powers played local populations against each other, and fostered elite classes of political collaborators. Upon independence, the newly independent states; left poorly equipped to govern due to weak institutions, the lack of popular representation, conflict over the allocation of resources and power, and problems of stateness; were often left power vacuums, with dictatorship of many variants likely left to fill the void.

The Cold War greatly affected global dictatorships, with many dictatorships able to seize or consolidate power by catering to the interests of either superpower. Upon the end of the Cold War, a series of non-democratic governments (including the Soviet Union itself) quickly collapsed, or met demands for democratization without having collapsed, and were replaced by transitional governments, which have been, in many cases, steps toward democratization. However, many regime openings have resulted in the emergence of new non-democratic regimes.

Today, dictatorship has reached an all time global low. Transitions to democratic rule have occurred in nearly all Western states. Democratization has made great strides in Latin America as well. However, non-democratic governments remain common in Africa and Asia.

A global diffusion effect, stemming from the waves of democratization in Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America in the 1980s, post-Communist Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and finally Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s, has arguably rendered the application of citizenship to government institutions, the "spirt of the times" across many regions.

See also