While we tend to define democracy in terms of procedures and values, we tend to define dictatorship as the opposite of democracy.  Dictatorships, or authoritarian systems, are countries that don’t hold free and fair elections.  This video will describe four different types of authoritarian government and discuss the role of elections in dictatorship.

Authoritarian elections

One of the defining characteristics of dictatorship today is not the absence of political institutions, but rather their presence.  Over 80% of authoritarian regimes don’t just hold elections today, but allow more than one party to compete in them.  In 2010, only five countries no legislature and only six countries banned all parties.  Dictatorships use democratic institutions to maintain themselves in power, but how do they do this?

Some countries still obviously rig elections—these are cases where ballot boxes have been stuffed with fake ballots, citizens are paid or threatened to vote in certain ways, or authorities simply report made up numbers.  For example, in Belarus’ presidential election this year, poll workers described being pressured to sign off on paperwork that left the vote count blank or  counting votes for other candidates as votes for the incumbent president.

This kind of fraud is very easy to detect – international and domestic election monitors in polling stations can often see them happening and statistics can detect anomalies in the numerical patterns that normal vote counts follow.  And so modern election rigging has become more sophisticated. Many authoritarian states shape the conditions under which elections take place in the months and years prior to a campaign rather than stuff ballot boxes on election day.  This is what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call creating an “uneven playing field.” 

Countries will use state-owned media to vilify their political opponents.  They make selective arrests of opposition leaders or party members to intimidate and incapacitate strong oppositions.  They will pack the judicial system with friendly judges who will turn a blind eye to corrupt practices, and they use the resources of the government – from control over public services to networks of allies in state-owned industries – to pressure voters to support the incumbent (this is called administrative pressure).

The key factor is the use of state institutions to influence election outcomes without direct rigging, and it allows some dictators to gain some degree of legitimacy by holding elections and coopt some of their potential opponents by having them participated in an unfair game.

Types of Dictatorship

While the exact line between democracy and dictatorship is fiercely debated, if you know that a country is a dictatorship, there is general agreement that it is one of four types of systems:

Party-based dictatorship

During the Cold War, this was the most common type of dictatorship, due to the prevalence of communist systems.  Today, there are only three true communist political systems left in the world – China, Vietnam, and Cuba – but since they are really important, we still talk about single party systems as a separate type.  In these countries, there is only one legal political party and that party chooses the country’s leader from within their ranks.  This is generally considered to be a very stable form of authoritarianism – single-party states have clear procedures to handle the transfer of power between two officials and use the party to manage political participation – encouraging ambitious politicians to join the party and seek power within the system rather than outside it.  This is why they are sometimes also called “bureaucratic authoritarian regimes.” That said, most of these systems collapsed in the early 1990s because they didn’t do that – statist economic policies failed to produce growth and quality of life on par with the West, and the party system failed to manage public dissent.

Single party states are not the only type of party-based dictatorship, however.  As noted, most dictatorships hold elections and allow more than one political party to compete in them.  These countries are called by many names — “electoral authoritarian” and “competitive authoritarian” are the most common ones.  In these countries, a single party still wins all the elections, but the leader or ruling party will “only” take home 60-80% of the vote.  The idea is that you are still managing relations among “elites” – those with economic or social power – through a single party, but you coopt some people who disagree with you into the system by allowing them to compete, albeit under unfair terms.  This is also a pretty stable form of government – by coopting potential challengers, these systems can manage opposition effectively – but party-based dictatorships can be prone to losing an occasional election – and losing power with it. 

Personalist regimes

Personalist regimes – also known as “sultanistic” regimes – center decision-making in a single individual.  Leaders manage their relationships with other elites and factions like the military through personal ties and patronage (offering jobs and money in exchange for support).  Classic examples of personalist dictators include Saddam Hussein in Iraq – who managed power through his family and clan-based ties – and Idi Amin in Uganda.  Even though these rulers may have formal political institutions in their countries – Hussein ruled through the Baath Party and Amin established military rule – all decisions are in fact concentrated in the hands of one person.

It is difficult to point to contemporary examples of personalist dictators.  Some people say that Vladimir Putin in Russia and Xi Jinpeng in China are more personalist dictators than the head of party-based regimes because they both changed their country’s rules to extend their time in power.  A clearer example is Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, who inherited his rule from his father and attempts to run the country through family and personal ties.

These types of dictatorships tend to be very unstable – because they do not institutionalize their rule, personalist regimes rarely survive more than one change of leader.


Hereditary monarchies are rare in today’s world, but remarkably durable.  Here, we aren’t talking about monarchies like the UK, where the Queen has few formal powers, but monarchs that actually rule their countries.  Examples are concentrated in the Middle East and include Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and the small Gulf states (like Qatar and Oman).  These countries govern through traditional legitimacy and familial ties.  Several of these countries have very small populations and lots of oil money, meaning that it is relatively easy to manage dissent through patronage.  Others, like Morocco, appear to be gradually evolving into constitutional monarchies where parliaments play an increasingly large role.  What is most notable about these countries, however, is that they survive.  During the region-wide pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, many personalist regimes fell, but all of the monarchies in the region survived the threat of popular protest.

Military Regimes

These are countries where the military runs the political system, either directly or indirectly.  Sometimes these regimes are run by a single person (as with Augusto Pinochet in Chile) and sometimes they are run by a junta – a council of military officers that share responsibility for governing (as with the junta that overthrew Isabel Peron in Argentina). 

Today, two examples of military regimes are in Burma and Thailand.  The military took power in Burma in 1962 coup and has gradually allowed the re-emergence of popularly-elected officials. The regime held elections in 2015 and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi became prime minister the next year.  Burma’s constitution, however, allows the military to operate without civilian control, and they retain significant influence over the direction of the nation.  Thailand has see-sawed between democratically elected governments and military rule for the past 80 years.  Their most recent coup was in 2014, when the military declared martial law after elected political parties had been unable to form a government or managed street protests.  Thailand also has a hereditary monarch, and protests that have been taking place there since July objecting to the lack of democratic freedoms and to the unusual behavior of the king – and the military regime’s support for it.

These are four general types of authoritarian regimes – as in countries like Thailand, actual regimes may be a combination of types and institutions.  What they share in common, though is rules and procedures that concentrate power in the hands of the few, with little accountability and few avenues to change leadership through legal means – the definition of dictatorship.