Spotlight TEDx Talk: The strange array of dictatorship in the world … and how it operates

Dr Natasha Ezrow at TEDxUniversityofEssex (Photo: University of Essex)

Dr Natasha Ezrow at TEDxUniversityofEssex (Photo: University of Essex)

There is a popular belief that a dictatorship is a dictatorship is a dictatorship, says political scientist Dr. Natasha Ezrow at TEDxUniversityofEssex, but, in reality, she says, all dictatorships are not created equal.

At the event, she presents three different archetypes of authoritarian regimes and explains how these reflect how a leader rises to power, holds on to it, and — eventually — falls. They are:

The paranoid, personalist dictator. Also known as a family dictatorship, as power is passed through family lines, yet not as an absolute monarchy:

  • Paranoia about staying in power: “Once the personalist dictator is in power, he is very, very consumed with staying in power,” Ezrow says, “because there are no institutionalized mechanisms for succession to hand over power to someone else, he becomes more and more paranoid, so he does everything he can to eliminate potential rivals.”
  • Weakening government to stay in power: How? Things like deliberately weakening the military to prevent a coup — “ousting those with the most expertise or those who have the most potential to challenge him” — or weakening legislature.
  • The most likely to steal from the people: “Because they see their time horizon is very short, they decide that while they are in power, they are going to hoard as much as possible while they have the chance,” Ezrow says. And because the government is weakened, she says, it is easy for personalist dictators to steal without consequences.

The many-headed absolute monarchy and single-party regimes. These are the regimes run by a royal family or one political party over time:

  • Less likely to agonize over staying in power. Why? Institutionalized succession.
  • Allows others to have power: Whether those are family members, party members or some other group or individual, power is spread a bit, says Ezrow.
  • Takes a lot of time to break down: Because these regimes exist in a regulated, fairly powerful bureaucratic system, it takes a lot of work to break them down, most often through negotiation, pacts and deliberation from an opposing group of elites.

The quickly-disappearing military regime. These are regimes started by a military coup:

  • They are in, then out: “When you look at military regimes across the world, their average duration of time in power is by far the least of any different type of dictatorship,” says Ezrow. The average time of a military regime? Two and a half years.
  • They worry about risking the legitimacy of the military: Getting involved in direct nation governing threatens that, Ezrow says.
  • They have day jobs: Unlike personalist or single-party dictators, those running military regimes have a sense of duty to a job outside of politics

And how do these different types of regimes fall? It depends, Ezrow says. A leader can die in office; international intervention can occur; assassination, military coups, or violent revolutions can happen, she says. While it is hard to predict the end of a dictatorship, there are some patterns. Single party dictatorships are known to have the some of the smoothest transitions because of institutionalized succession, she says, while personalist dictators are often associated with violent end-of-regimes, partially because they are likely to indulge an urge to see themselves as inseparable from the state, and cling to power even when violence ensues.

Yet, as much as we know about authoritarian regimes, there is a lot we don’t. “Two-thirds of the world lives under dictatorship,” Ezrow says, “yet we know very little about dictatorship.” But the one thing we can take away? “In dictatorships, institutions matter.”


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