For the leaders of authoritarian state, nothing is better than a “democratic” election to establish their legitimacy.
A dictator is a political leader who possesses absolute power. A dictatorship is a state ruled by one dictator or by a small clique. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in the Roman Republic appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).
Like the term “tyrant” (which was originally a non-pejorative Ancient Greek title), and to a lesser degree “autocrat“, “dictator” came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive rule. In modern usage the term “dictator” is generally used to describe a leader who holds or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power. Dictatorships are often characterised by some of the following: suspension of elections and civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents; not abiding by the rule of law procedures, and cult of personality. Dictatorships are often one-party or dominant-party states.
A wide variety of leaders coming to power in different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, one-party states, dominant-party states, and civilian governments under a personal rule, have been described as dictators. They may hold left or right-wing views, or may be apolitical.
In social choice theory, the notion of a dictator is formally defined as a person who can achieve any feasible social outcome he/she wishes. The formal definition yields an interesting distinction between two different types of dictators.
- The strong dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind (e.g. raise taxes, having someone killed, etc.), a definite way of achieving that goal. This can be seen as having explicit absolute power, like Sulla.
- The weak dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind, and for any political scenario, a course of action that would bring about the desired goal. For the weak dictator, it is usually not enough to “give their orders”, rather he/she has to manipulate the political scene appropriately. This means that the weak dictator might actually be lurking in the shadows, working within a political setup that seems to be non-dictatorial. An example of such a figure is Lorenzo the Magnificent, who controlled Renaissance Florence.
Note that these definitions disregard some alleged dictators who are not interested in the actual achieving of social goals, as much as in propaganda and controlling public opinion. Monarchs and military dictators are also excluded from these definitions, because their rule relies on the consent of other political powers (the nobility or the army).
More and more countries in the world hold elections by universal suffrage to elect their president. But behind this encouraging sign for the spread of democracy, are hidden elections that were democratic in name only. Intimidation of opponents, controlled media power, threatened voters, vote rigging, unique candidate: authoritarian regimes compete inventiveness to ensure election results that comfort their legitimacy.