A dictatorship is a form of government where one person or a small group holds all power. As an autocratic government, a dictatorship severely restricts freedom, free speech, dissent and other elements essential to democracy. Human rights tend to suffer under dictatorships. What countries are controlled by dictatorships? In this article, we’ll examine what countries are still under dictatorship, what types of dictatorships exist and whether there are more dictatorships now than in the past.
Dictatorships exist when an individual, a political party, or the military holds all the power within a nation. North Korea, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Guinea, Myanmar, and China are seven examples.
Which countries are still under dictatorship?
Because of events like military coups, countries can shift to dictatorships very quickly. In its reporting on the Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg, Sciencenorway states more people are living under dictatorships in 2023 than democracies. Here are seven countries which were under dictatorships at the time of writing:
Korea split in 1948 after World War II, creating North and South Korea. Since the country’s beginning, the Kim family has been in control: Kim II Sung, Kim Jong Il, and currently, Kim Jong Un. These three generations have served as dictators over a totalitarian state. Since Kim Jong Un took over as Supreme Leader, he has taken back power once delegated from his late father and strengthened the Worker’s Party of Korea as the country’s most important political unit.
According to Human Rights Watch and other watchdog bodies, North Korea is one of the most repressive countries in the world. It has no independent media groups, trade unions or civil society organizations, while dissent of any kind is harshly punished often through prison camps and hard labor. Other rights, such as the right to health, food and freedom of expression, are also routinely violated.
Afghanistan’s political history is complex and fraught. In 1921, the country became independent. It was originally ruled by a monarchy, but decades of political turmoil and coups endangered the lives of millions. In 1995, the Taliban came to power. During the war in Afghanistan, presidential elections were held for the first time in 2004, but the country was not stable for long. In 2021, when the United States withdrew its military presence, the Taliban overthrew the government and took back control.
None of the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have been elected through free and fair elections. According to organizations like Freedom House, the Taliban has severely restricted the rights of women, minority groups, journalists and those who oppose the regime. International standards, such as the right to due process, freedom of the press, freedom of movement and so on, have not been respected.
Dictatorships always threaten freedom of the press. Here’s our article on what freedom of the press is and why it matters.
Burkina Faso gained its independence in 1960. In recent years, hundreds of jihadist attacks have destabilized the nation and destroyed trust in the government. In January 2022, the military announced it had taken control. Leaders suspended the Constitution and ousted the president, who had been democratically elected. Another coup followed in September, but the military remains in power. Originally, the junta promised to hold an election in 2024, but the junta leader has since said security is the top priority, not elections.
According to Freedom House, the two coups moved Burkina Faso from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.” The government is not elected and the junta has suspended civil and political activity. While the military has been secretive about its plans, it appears to have aligned itself more closely with Russia. A November 2023 article from Le Monde described cooperation between the nations as “accelerating.”
Niger became independent in 1960. Over the next decades, the country bounced between military regimes and civilian rule. In 2023, a military coup overthrew the government, making it the fifth coup in Niger since its independence. In response, surrounding countries and Western allies began economic sanctions. For a country that receives around $2 billion in development aid every year, sanctions dealt a harsh blow.
The African Union also suspended Niger.
At the time of writing, Freedom House had not yet released its annual report on Niger, but given the military takeover, its freedoms are unlikely to have improved from 2022. According to Relief Web, about 26.5 million people could be dealing with food insecurity in 2024, while around 9 million children could be at risk from acute malnutrition.
Guinea, which is a western country in Africa, achieved independence in 1958. It’s experienced a series of coups, as well as some elections. In 2021, a military junta took control of Guinea, claiming it was necessary to deal with corruption and poor leadership under the president. In response, the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended the country’s membership. The junta said it would transition Guinea into civilian rule. After some uncertainty, experts from ECOWAS and Guinea agreed to a 24-month timeline. In May 2023, however, the military began suppressing pro-democracy protests with what journalist Nosmot Gbadamosi described as “alarming violence.”
According to Freedom House’s 2023 report, Guinea is a “Not Free” country. The government was not elected, opposition is not tolerated, and freedom of the press is threatened. Until the country moves to civilian rule, Guinea will remain under the control of a military dictatorship.
Myanmar achieved independence in 1948. From 1962-2011, a military junta ruled. In 2015, it held free elections and a civilian government was established. In 2021, the military overthrew the government and detained the president and other leaders. The vice president, who had been appointed by the military, became acting president. Myanmar civilians and the international community condemned the coup. At the time of writing, the junta was still in control, but the dictatorship was facing increased opposition from militias and pro-democracy fighters.
The military dictatorship in Myanmar has exercised extreme force. According to Human Rights Watch, life in Myanmar has included mass killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and other violations of human rights. The junta has also installed new restrictions on Rohingya camps and villages, which has led to worse food and water shortages, disease and malnutrition.
The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was the founding party and has been in charge of the country since its establishment. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China’s leader Xi Jinping has “consolidated control” of the party since 2012. Because of the party’s influence, strength, and actions against political opponents, many believe China should be considered a dictatorship.
Freedom House classifies China as “Not Free.” For years, the CCP has ingrained itself deeper into daily life, from state governments, to media, to education, business and much more. There are some elections, but Freedom House says there are no “direct or competitive elections” for national leaders. People have no legitimate options for other parties or political expression. Rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process and freedom of movement are also threatened.
What kinds of dictatorships are there?
A dictatorship is a type of government where power is stripped from the people, so there are no free and fair elections or representative leaders. While all dictatorships involve the consolidation of power, there are three different types: military dictatorships, one-party dictatorships and individual dictatorships.
Military dictatorships are a very common type of dictatorship. According to Robert Longley, military dictatorships occur when military leaders have “substantial or complete control of the people and functions of government.” One military leader may have complete control or power may be divided among a group of military officers. Many of the countries still under dictatorships are controlled by the military.
When a country has just one political party that controls the government, it’s considered a dictatorship. China is a good example. Since the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been the only party with power. According to Brittanica, the CCP has over 85 million members and oversees all central, provincial and local organs of the government.
Individual dictatorships are dictatorships where one person holds all the power. They may also present as military dictatorships or one-party dictatorships, but all decisions are heavily directed by individuals. Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein are just three examples of infamous dictators.
Are there more dictatorships now than in the past?
Experts have been warning about the rise of global authoritarianism for years. In 2022, Freedom House released a report finding that 38% of the world’s population lives in “Not Free” countries, which is the highest percentage since 1997. Throughout 2022, 60 countries saw declines in freedom. While not all those countries are considered dictatorships, many are on the brink. As mentioned earlier, many experts now consider China a dictatorship. In October 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recognized Russia as a dictatorship. Turkey, where President Erdoğan has been consistently cutting away democratic norms, is also often called a dictatorship in practice, if not in name. The prevalence of dictatorships is something everyone should be concerned about.
Rising authoritarianism is just one global issue that needs to be addressed. Here’s a list of 20 current issues.