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March 14, 2018


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No, I don't think you are wrong. I think it's part of the same trend as the rise of Trump, Brexit and the rise of populist/far-right wing parties in continental Europe, just more exaggerated. Even in non-dictatorships, there does seem to a trend towards more illiberal leadership.

As with general trends, it's hard to make a generalized cause or set of cause, but I think a big part of it is the rise of China, a state which, as you said, is itself moving from an oligarchy into a full-blown dictatorship.

It does so in variety of ways. Beijing is better able to give material support to dictatorial regimes that support it, it provides an exemplar of a strong and powerful state that is also illiberal and undemocratic.

If trends continue and the People's Republic of China replaces the United States of America as the leading state in the family of nations, then probably the world will become more like it. And even if the West is able to somehow overcome the PRC and its allies, the struggle will probably make the West more illiberal, undemocratic and authoritarian.

Sorry about being such a downer, but I suspect that I (being 30) will live to see the decline of liberal democracy within my lifetime.

Gambia? That's a bit unfair don't you think? Yahya Jammeh was forced out of office in January of 2017 and the winner of the 2016 election (Adama Barrow) was inaugurated. Since then he released over 150 of Jammeh's political prisoners, signed up to various treaties protecting human rights and got Gambia readmitted to the Commonwealth.

You're right! Fixed.

On the other hand, I don't think we can write out Zimbabwe yet. They have elections coming up, but that doesn't tell us much yet. And as for South Sudan, if Syria is still on the list, South Sudan should be too -- Mayardit is still President and his government still controls the army and most of the country's area and population.

Otherwise, how did Tanzania get in there? Not a bastion of liberal democracy, but I wouldn't call it a dictatorship.

Doug M.

Hi, Doug! Here's the thinking:

(1) About Zimbabwe: my impression was that the country wasn't exactly headed towards democracy, but there weren't any strongmen waiting in the wings to create a truly Sultanistic regime for a while. So it's out of dictatorship, although it's not necessarily out of authoritarianism.

(2) Assad's back on the list because he's regained absolute authority in the areas he controls and no longer needs to worry about territorial losses. He's the dictator of a secure rump Syria. Is that equivalent to South Sudan? If Kiir faces credible violent threats to his rule, then he's no longer a dictator by our definition. (BTW, I've seen him referred to as Kiir in the reputable Anglophone press; is that incorrect?)

(3) Regarding Tanzania: Magufuli seems rather more dictatorial than Ortega. Magufuli's shut down newspapers, banned assemblies, "disappeared" opponents, closed radio stations, and extorted specific businesses with arbitrary tax demands. Ortega expelled opposition legislators from the assembly, kept opponents from running, and intimidated journalists. What I don't know is whether Magufuli faces serious opposition within the ruling party; my impression is that he doesn't. He seems to meet the criteria we laid out! But I haven't been to Tanzania so I'm certainly open to counterarguments.

Magafuli is pretty bad. But (1) Tanzania does still have a functional opposition (he's trying to wipe it out, but he hasn't yet; and (2) for purposes of our definition, we won't have an answer until we know whether he's going to obey the constitutional limits on the Presidency: two terms of five years each. That may sound unlikely, but after Nyerere stepped down in 1985, the next three guys followed the Constitution faithfully. So you had the second president serving 1985-1995, the third from '95 to 2005, and the fourth from '05 to 2015. Now, part of this was the Nyerere mystique -- taking a third term would not only be unconstitutional, it would be setting yourself above the Teacher. And maybe that mystique has faded enough for someone to make the attempt. Magafuli was elected in '15, and he'll probably be re-elected in 2020, so we won't know for sure until 2025.

Oh, and: Ethiopia's current status is (?). The dictator stepped down after protests! Now that's not quite unheard of -- Suharto did it -- but it's super rare, and it means that nobody quite knows what will happen now in Ethiopia. Given the country's situation and its political culture it's almost certain there'll be some sort of authoritarian rule, but it may not be a dictatorship as such.

(That's one reason I'm glad we're revisiting this every couple of years -- time gives perspective.)

Doug M.

Doug M.

So the test is whether Magufuli tries to overcome the two term limit? That's reasonable. But it would rule out any pre-1994 president of Mexico from being a dictator despite the clearly dictatorial aspects of the system. That's not unreasonable, but I'm trying to grok why it's not unreasonable. Help?

A guy who, in accord with constitutional norms, steps down, gives up power, and goes into retirement? Can't be called a dictator under our definition.

Yes, this does lead to some weird edge cases like Mexico; what do you call that, serial dictatorship? And it opens up the possibility of someone acting like a dictator in every regard for six or eight years, but still not making the grade. But, shrug, that's the definition we've gone with. Clinging to power seems pretty critical to dictatorship, so giving it up voluntarily is probably a deal breaker.

Doug M.

Why is Fiji there? Bainimarama did originally take power in a coup but since then held elections. Despite some reports of fraud my understanding is that he won pretty fairly (and for what it's worth that also unlocked renewed lending by the multilaterals).

Doug: I agree that Mexico is a special case of a dictatorship that solved the succession problem. But I'm not sure that clinging to power is a necessary part of our definition.

Consider, for example, Danny Ortega the first time around. He was a dictator, having established control within the FSLN. But he left after losing the 1990 election. Still, there are various definitions of "voluntary," and the Sandinistas probably would not have held that election without pressure. So he's still in there under the restrictive definition.

But what about Pinochet in Chile? Or Obasanjo in Nigeria? Reaching further back, there's Uriburu in Argentina. It's a small set (I'm sure I'm missing a few tyrants who resigned) but I don't think we need to hew to a definition that would exclude them. No?

FS: In 2016, Bainimarama arrested a group of opposition politicians in what appears to have been a show of force; some restrictions on assembly remain in effect and the government also suspended three opposition lawmakers.

Right now, he looks like Ortega, preserving democratic forms without much of the substance. My instinct is to wait until this year's elections before deciding whether to take it off the list.

But Doug knows more about the country than I ever will.

I'd argue that the threats to Western Democracies are not the PRC. Rather they are internal. Here in the USA we have a steady diminishment of rights of all kinds. The gov't regularly violates the 4th amendment with its now-incessant electronic spying. And the first amendment is under assault for, of all things, a ridiculous belief that people have some kind of right not to be offended. College campuses seem to be closing their doors to genuine controversy, while our electronic overlords in the form of Facebook, Google, Twitter, et al, seem to be restricting free speech right and left.

And in Europe, they are importing hordes of Muslims who are philosophically opposed to the tenets of free, liberal democracy. And you already see self-censorship by the likes of the formerly brash Charlie Hebdo and others who simply don't want to be firebombed for committing apostasy. Meanwhile, London is locking up the likes of Tommy Robinson, whom you might not like, but he'd be a free man in the USA.

Sadly, the West's slide away from liberal democracy is a self-inflicted wound. And from what you write above, it's not one that's likely to be healed by outside influences either.

Kim G
Redding, CA

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