Are We Finally Ousting the World’s Last Dictators? Sadly, No.

3 November 2014, 1615 EST

[Note: This is a guest post by Andrew G. Reiter, Assistant Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College.]


Following massive public protests challenging his attempt to amend the constitution and extend his 27-year rule; Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore announced his resignation Friday, bringing an end to one of the world’s longest standing dictatorships. In his influential 2003 book, Breaking the Real Axis of Evil, Mark Palmer argued that the days of the dictator were numbered. The wave of democracy that had washed over the world in the last decades of the twentieth-century was making this form of government increasingly obsolete. Moreover, Palmer contended, if Western democracies made democracy promotion a priority, by calling for dictators to step down and applying targeted economic sanctions and military force when necessary, the dictator’s demise could be accelerated and the world could be free of them by 2025. Now at the halfway mark and in the wake of the latest dictator, Compaore, to fall from power, it is ripe to ask: are we finally ousting the last dictators? The answer, sadly, is no. The dictator is not going away anytime soon.

At first glance, it might seem as though we are making great progress. Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, tried, and hanged following a US-led military invasion in 2003. Liberia’s Charles Taylor was forced out, exiled, then captured and tried in The Hague. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled for over 40 years, was captured and killed by rebel forces in 2011. The popular protests at the heart of the Arab Spring movement removed long-time Tunisian and Egyptian dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak from power, and Yemen leader Ali Abdullah Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia.

In addition to these high profile cases, Bhutan transitioned from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 2008, the first free elections were held in Guinea in 2010 following the end of Lansana Conté’s 24-year reign and two years of military rule and unrest, and protesters forced Morocco’s King Mohammed VI to pass extensive constitutional changes that limited his power in 2011. Even the repressive and isolated military junta in Myanmar has recently begun to liberalize, as evidenced by US President Barack Obama’s 2012 visit and recent outreach by the US to push for credible elections next year.

Yet, while these developments are positive, they sadly remain outliers in a world where democratization has slowed and authoritarian regimes retain a firm grasp on many countries. Strongman dictators continue to reign across Africa, with some, including Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Chad Cameroon, and José Eduardo dos Santos in Angola, having ruled now for over thirty years. Even Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir, who is under sanctions and indicted by the International Criminal Court, has now reigned for 25 years. Most of Central Asia remains authoritarian a full two decades following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with three countries—Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan—having had the same leader since independence. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the last dictator of Europe, has held power in Belarus since 1994.

While monarchs remain a relic of the past and are largely symbolic in most of the world, more than a half dozen countries from Africa to the Middle East to Southeast Asia are still dominated by kings (Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland), sultans (Brunei, Oman), and emirs (Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates). The fact that most face few internal threats and have undergone successful succession in recent years without difficulty suggest that they are likely to remain in power well into the future.

And despite the Cold War ending long ago, we have not seen a crack in the world’s communist states, with the parties remaining firmly in control in China, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba (despite Fidel Castro’s illness); and Kim Jong-un taking over for his father, Kim Jon Il, in 2011 atop the party and government in North Korea. Similarly, while Cambodia is no longer a communist regime, Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party have ruled the country for over three decades.

Overall, authoritarian regimes continue to persist around the world, despite the high-profile removal of several dictators from power in the last decade. Indeed, the number of “not free” countries as rated by Freedom House has hovered steadily around 25% since the end of the Cold War.

Scholars attribute this persistence to a range of factors. First, the pace of democratization was inevitably going to slow following the relatively “easy” transitions immediately following the Cold War in more developed countries with previous experiences with democracy. Indeed, recent research by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way suggests that many of the authoritarian regimes that are left were forged in violence and revolutionary struggle are thus better able to withstand crises and are far more durable that other authoritarian regimes.

Yet others point to economic issues. The recent economic success of China and Russia make authoritarianism a more attractive alternative for developing countries, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Some point more specifically to the continued high price of oil: petroleum-rich states have largely resisted recent pressures to democratize, and countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela have worked to support fellow non-democratic regimes in their neighborhoods. And while countries continue to develop and modernize around the world, recent work suggests that it plays a larger role in preventing authoritarian backsliding than in actually promoting democratization.

Finally, others suggest that the failure of Western democracies to engage in effective democracy promotion has played a pivotal role in the persistence of authoritarianism. The United States, in particular, has lost some enthusiasm for democracy promotion following the turmoil in post-invasion Iraq, and the Obama administration is perhaps now prioritizing security over democracy abroad.

Whatever the causes, democratization has slowed considerably around the globe. Thus the fall of one more dictator—Burkina Faso’s Compaore—should be applauded, but we should be careful to avoid a false sense of progress when many so many dictators remain. And new research is beginning to examine the phenomenon by which dictators are removed from power only to be replaced by new dictatorships, as may yet occur in Burkina Faso given the military’s intervention. Thus the world, sadly, will not be free of dictators by 2025; decades of hard work and, almost certainly, many bloody protests and deadly conflicts remain.