China’s recent formalisation of Xi Jinping as president for life marks the country’s turn away from partially accountable leadership to a model that is, in effect, a dictatorship. This runs counter to not only China’s post-Mao Zedong 10-year changes of leadership but also a more general global trend towards democracy.
Yet Xi is not alone, with a number of countries retaining dictatorial forms of political leadership. A dictator is understood here as a person who holds absolute political power, either formally or in a practical sense.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has confirmed Russia’s position among their ranks. Likewise Belarus’ first and only president, Alexander Lukashenko, holds effectively absolute power in what is, in theory, a democracy. Opposition is allowed in Belarus, if vilified by the state-controlled media and restricted in running in elections. Meanwhile, the tiny number of absolute monarchies, such as the Sultan of Brunei, also hold similar powers to that of dictators.
Many “democracies” are a trope for deeply compromised political processes. And where democracy falters, as it seems now to be doing in many developed countries, ordinary people too easily turn to “strong”, charismatic leaders.
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To paraphrase Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, so long as people look to Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly rise and make them miserable.
Here’s a snapshot of how they’re currently looking in the most notable areas around the world:
In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov has ruled by personal fiat since 2007, succeeding the late president Saparmurat Niyazov who employed similar rule. In neighboring Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov has enjoyed absolute power since 1989.
Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev has also been president since independence in 1991 and, while allowing elections, does not allow an opposition to compete in them. In Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a de facto dictatorship, holding restricted elections in some areas in the middle of a civil war.
Closer to home, North Korea is just about everybody’s idea of a clichéd dictatorship, where the Kim dynasty has ruled the country unimpeded since 1948.
Further south, Cambodia is now effectively a dictatorship, with Hun Sen Prime Minister since 1985, banning all viable opposition and saying he intends to stay as leader for another two decades. Next door in Laos, President Bounnhang Vorachith is both head of state and de facto leader, but shares power with a small central committee headed by a prime minister. So, while Laos is a closed authoritarian one party state, as is Vietnam, they are not technically dictatorships.
Thailand has had a dictatorship since the military coup of 2014 in which General Prayuth Chan-ocha installed himself as prime minister. Under Thailand’s new restricted constitution, new elections (when they are eventually held) may see him continue in power.
Africa has historically been a hotbed of dictatorship, although it’s currently enjoying an uplift in democratic transitions. Even so, Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Rwanda and Sudan are all either dictatorships or very close to complying with that term.
So too in Equatorial Guinea where President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in power since 1979, when he overthrew his own uncle. In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Robert Mugabe as an all-powerful ruler.
Juntas may be dictatorial in style but are actually small, tightly controlled committees, as are politburos (central committees). Latin America popularized the term junta and has had a colorful parade of dictators, but has been reduced from its dictatorial heights of the 1970s to just one: President Raoul Castro of Cuba.
Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s Professor of International Politics.