Four years ago this week, I had a debate with John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber. Briefly, he said that dictatorship was on the way out as a form of government. I sharply disagreed. Four years seems like a reasonable amount of time to circle back and ground-truth.
Here is the original post. Take a moment to click through, so that we’re all agreed on definitions. Good? Okay, then: Who are the world’s remaining dictators, and have their numbers changed since 2011? The 2011 list is below, with original comments in italics and 2015 updates in parentheses.
Angola: Dos Santos has been the President nonstop since 1979. There are significant limits on his power, but IMO he qualifies. (Dos Santos celebrated 35 years in power last year. NO CHANGE.)
Azerbaijan (NO CHANGE)
Belarus (NO CHANGE)
Cambodia: Hun Sen, a bland and retiring little man, has ruled unchallenged since the middle 1980s. (He rules still. NO CHANGE.)
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. (He hasn’t gone anywhere. NO CHANGE.)
Chad (It’s still Idriss Déby. NO CHANGE.)
Congo Republic (NO CHANGE)
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. (And now they’re both 44. But otherwise, NO CHANGE.)
Cuba: Raúl, not Fidel. It’s surprising how many people think it’s still Fidel. (NO CHANGE.)
Djibouti (NO CHANGE.)
Equatorial Guinea: This is a nasty one. Doesn’t get much attention, of course. (It’s still nasty. NO CHANGE.)
Eritrea: Afewerki is another nasty one. A shame, since his rule started with really high hopes. (NO CHANGE.)
Ethiopia (Ethiopia’s long-term dictator Meles Zenawa died in 2012. However, his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, has been governing in much the same manner — centralized one-party rule with no public opposition or criticism. In May 2015 Ethiopia held parliamentary “elections”; the ruling party won 90% of the seats and its allies took the rest. Ethiopia’s human rights record continues to be dire, and it looks like Desalegn has settled in for the long run. NO CHANGE.)
Kazakhstan (NO CHANGE.)
North Korea (Supreme Leader Kim died in late 2011, and was replaced by his son, Supreme Leader Kim. NO CHANGE.)
Rwanda (NO CHANGE.)
South Sudan: I’m jumping the gun here, because the country of South Sudan is just a few months old. But President Kiir has already made it pretty clear that he’s not going anywhere. (And he hasn’t. Four years later, Kiir is a post-colonial African dictator in the classic style. But the country is in the middle of a civil war, and therefore by definition not stable. So ... CHANGE.)
Sudan (NO CHANGE.)
Syria: At least for the nonce — I think Assad has a decent chance of sticking around. (And four years later he is still around. You can argue whether he’s a proper dictator, though, as he has now lost control of about half his country’s population and ¾ of its territory. I’ll give this CHANGE.)
Tajikistan (NO CHANGE.)
Turkmenistan (NO CHANGE.)
Uganda: To nobody’s surprise, President Museveni won a fourth term a few months ago. (And he’ll likely win a fifth next year. NO CHANGE.)
Uzbekistan (NO CHANGE.)
Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe, still hanging in there at age 87, has been the world’s oldest dictator for a while now. (And, good grief, he’s STILL hanging in there at age 91. NO CHANGE.)
So, of 24 clear dictatorships in 2011, two have perhaps slipped out of that category — South Sudan is in the middle of a civil war, and Syria’s Assad has lost control over much of his country.
Did we overlook anything in our original list? Gambia has a good case: Yahya Jammeh came to power in a 1994 and shows no sign of leaving soon. So did Burkina Faso, but Blaise Compaoré fled at the end of 2014. Acting retroactively, that would make Burkina the third country to have left dictatorship since the original post.
Have any new dictatorships been added? We would say yes, three. Two of these are pretty minor and one is not minor at all. The minor ones are Fiji and Togo, both of which I listed as borderline cases back in 2011. In Fiji, the Prime Minister operates within what looks like a British-style constitutional framework, but a permanent legislative supermajority, a hand-picked judiciary and an unfree press means he can basically rule at will. In Togo, President Gnassingbe has just won another “election” and looks good to stay in power indefinitely.
The not so minor one is Russia. Back in 2011 I said that Russia was authoritarian, but not a dictatorship. But in the last four years, Russia has become dramatically more illiberal, power has been ever more centralized, multiple critics and opponents of the regime have been prosecuted, imprisoned, or murdered outright, and the cult of personality around Putin has grown extreme. All of these things were just getting started in 2011, but they’ve moved very rapidly since. At this point we think it’s reasonable to call Russia a dictatorship.
We also have two new borderline cases. The small one is Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged his country into unrest after what looks to have been a power grab. He hasn’t established full control, however, so it’s not a dictatorship and looks unlikely to become one. The big one is Venezuela. A while back, we argued that the Polity IV database had jumped the gun by classifying the country a dictatorship. It still isn’t there yet — President Maduro does not rule by decree and he is facing contested legislative elections in December. But the trend since Chavez’s death has been sharply authoritarian. The government has banned opposition candidates, refused to permit foreign observers, and arrested opposition leaders. We hesitate to call it a dictatorship yet, however — partly because this trend is fairly recent, and partly because it is not clear how much power is really consolidated in President Maduro’s hands. The December elections should provide strong evidence one way or another.
In summary: two medium-size countries have fallen out thanks to ongoing civil wars. One small one has ousted its dictator. Meanwhile two small countries and one large important country have joined the club.
In other words, dictatorship does not seem to be on its way out as a form of government.