In a recent thread over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin averred that with fall of Qaddafi, the world is running out of dictators. I sharply disagreed. I’d like to distill the ensuing discussion into a post, because it led to an interesting question: who are the world’s remaining dictators?
Let’s start by defining our terms. I define a dictator as (1) a solitary leader, who (2) wields tremendous personal power, and (3) rules in a generally illiberal manner, and (4) will not leave office or surrender power unless compelled by force majeure, and (5) is not a traditional monarch.
(1) “solitary leader” eliminates juntas and oligarchies. There are several borderline cases where a country is ruled by a group, but one member of the group is clearly primus inter pares. It also eliminates regimes that are repressive, but run by a party or oligarchy rather than one guy.
(2) “tremendous personal power” is obviously pretty slippery. But as the judge said, we know it when we see it. A dictator may have to deal with other power centers, and may face various and sharp constraints on his rule. But if the leader can do pretty much as he pleases, provided that he wants something badly enough, he qualifies. (Note that this one disqualifies rulers who are “merely” authoritarian.)
(3) “illiberal”: a leader who can and does ignore human rights, freedom of the press, inconvenient constitutional provisions, and so forth. Note that this does not disallow elections, as long as the dictator always wins them. A free-ish press is also possible, as long as it can be curbed or suppressed if it presents a serious problem.
(4) “will not leave”: this is close to the heart of the definition. A dictator is a guy you can’t get rid of, ever. Dictators may — very rarely — step down voluntarily, but they don’t lose elections and they can’t easily be compelled to leave otherwise. If you’re going to rule indefinitely absent a coup, revolution, civil war, or at least massive and sustained protests accompanied by major social and economic disruption, good chance you’re dictator.
(5) “not a traditional monarch”: this one is more for convenience than anything else. There are several traditional monarchs, all in the Arab world, who are very much like dictators. For now, I’m choosing to view them as their own category.
Obviously this is a fairly ad hoc definition that is going to scoop up a wide range of characters. The resulting group is likely to be, as the biologists say, paraphyletic. And it’s going to be a bit blurry around the edges, too. Nonetheless I think it’s an interesting exercise: if we apply these standards, who do we end up with? Well, I get the following list:
Angola: Dos Santos has been the President nonstop since 1979. There are significant limits on his power, but IMO he qualifies.
Cambodia: Hun Sen, a bland and retiring little man, has ruled unchallenged since the middle 1980s.
Cameroon: Paul Biya since 1982. The country has kept the trappings of a democratic republic, including opposition parties, but Biya is in charge and he’s not going anywhere.
Congo (Democratic Republic): President Kabila, son of the late President Kabila, is likely to stay in power for the foreseeable future. He’s in a tie with Aliyev of Azerbaijan for youngest dictator -- they’re both just 40.
Cuba: Raúl, not Fidel. (It’s surprising how many people think it’s still Fidel.)
Equatorial Guinea: this is a nasty one. Doesn’t get much attention, of course.
Eritrea: Afewerki is another nasty one. A shame, since his rule started with really high hopes.
South Sudan: I’m jumping the gun here, because the country of South Sudan is just a few months old. But President Mayardit has already made it pretty clear that he’s not going anywhere.
Syria: At least for the nonce. (I think Assad has a decent chance of sticking around.)
Uganda: to nobody’s surprise, President Museveni won a fourth term a few months ago.
Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe, still hanging in there at age 87, has been the world’s oldest dictator for a while now.
There are some borderline cases:
Algeria: I’d put Algeria right on the border. M. Bouteflika is president for life, has built an immense personal and family fortune, is the subject of a personality cult, and rules illiberally. On the other hand, his power is relatively limited; in particular, he must deal with rival power centers, most notably the military and the security services.
Burma: Burma was run by a military junta until the middle 2000s. Then Than Shwe drove his last serious rival out of power. He then ruled — but from behind the scenes; he was a dour, withdrawn character who mostly shunned the limelight. Then Than Shwe stepped down last year, appointing a hand-picked successor. It’s a bit soon to say whether the new guy qualifies.
The Central African Republic: Francois Bozize took power in a coup a while back, but I’m not sure he qualifies; he came close to losing the last election, and might have accepted defeat if he had.
Fiji: the current leader came to power in a military coup and shows no sign of stepping down. However, to me he looks “authoritarian” rather than “dictator” — Fiji still has a somewhat-functioning constitutional framework that seems to place some real limits on his power.
Gabon: the current President Bongo is the son of the late President Bongo. Bongo pere was the real deal — he ruled without serious opposition for decades. It’s not clear to me whether Bongo fils is in the same league.
Togo: It looks like Gnassingbe fils, after a tricky couple of years, is on track to fill his father’s shoes. Not sure if he’s there yet, though.
And some that don’t come close:
Afghanistan: even putting aside the fact that half the country is at war with him, Karzai just doesn’t seem to have that much power.
Iran: theocracy, very authoritarian, but also weirdly constitutional — the powers of both the President and the Supreme Leader are vast but constrained. Iran is sui generis, its own strange thing.
Nicaragua: Ortega has certainly played around the edges of standard democratic practice, but if he lost an election, then he would lose power.
Russia: Actually, I don’t think Russia is very close to the border at all. Authoritarian, yes, but not any kind of dictatorship. I’m only including it here because people are going to ask.
Venezuela: Oh, come on. Obnoxious narcissist with authoritarian tendencies, not a dictator. As with Russia, included only because someone’s going to bring it up.
That makes 24, plus six borderline cases.
So: is this list meaningful? useful or interesting in any way? or is this just a parlor game?
There are some patterns. There’s not a single dictatorship left in the New World other than Cuba. The complete disappearance of the classic Latin American strongman is an interesting historical development that my co-blogger is annoyed to learn doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention in the rest of the world. 14 of the 24 are in Africa, and six more (the four ‘Stans, Azerbaijan and Belarus) are from the former Soviet Union. In fact, if we include Cambodia, Cuba, and North Korea, then every single dictatorship except for Syria is either African or a relic of Communism.
I’ve excluded the Arab absolute monarchies. But if we included them, then you could argue with a straight face that every remaining dictatorship falls into one of just three groups: African, Arab, or Communist/ex-Communist.
Is there any meaning in that pattern?