Dictators suddenly seem to have a lot less longevity. This year, several of the world's longest-serving autocrats have either died or been ousted from power.
The death of North Korea's Kim Jong Il from heart failure had nothing to do with the Arab uprisings that ousted four leaders who had been in power for decades — Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
Yet the decreasing number of autocrats this year is part of a decades-long trend. These days, there are a lot fewer "leaders for life," defined by the group Freedom House as individuals or families entrenched in power for a decade or more, with no prospect for ouster short of revolution.
"Clearly, you had more longtime dictators in the 1970s and early 1980s than you do today," says Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, which promotes democracy and political rights.
Not The 'End Of History'
Analysts like Puddington aren't predicting an inevitable movement in all nations toward Western-style democracy.
Even the countries that have overthrown veteran tyrants this year are not exactly on a glide path toward democracy. The ruling Egyptian military's use of force against protesters in recent days is just one example of the challenges ahead.
Nonetheless, paying lip service to the idea of elections and other democratic norms has become an expectation in many parts of the world. And technology — including social media and satellite television — has made it harder for dictators to isolate their people and keep themselves in power for decades.
"The zeitgeist is more pro-democratic," says Nicolas van de Walle, a government professor at Cornell University. "It's not only that there are fewer dictators, but there are virtually no dictators left who don't talk the language of democracy and turnover of executive power."
Dictators: An Isolated Few
The ranks of autocrats who have enjoyed unquestioned power for 15 years or more is essentially limited to a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, and in the former Soviet sphere, such as Uzbekistan and Belarus.
The Castro brothers are still in power in Cuba after more than 50 years, but they have become an exception in Latin America.
During the 1970s, all but a handful of Latin American countries were ruled by military regimes. Those gave way during the 1980s to democratically elected countries that embraced Western political and economic ideas.
In 1989, dictatorships across Eastern Europe collapsed virtually all at once. The fall of the Berlin Wall also had significant repercussions outside the region. Not only did the push for freedom have a powerful effect elsewhere, but the end of the Cold War left many dictators without the support they'd enjoyed as proxies for the U.S. or the Soviet Union.
Between 1990 and 1994, more than half of the sub-Saharan African nations underwent regime change.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, only five countries in Africa held competitive elections on a regular basis, according to Staffan Lindberg, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. This year alone, 17 sub-Saharan African countries have held elections.
Middle East As Outlier
That left the Middle East and North Africa as a global outlier, with nations ruled either by monarchies or autocrats.
Perhaps ironically, some monarchies have shown themselves more open to limited democratic reforms than nations that called themselves republics. One trigger for the Arab Spring, according to some analysts, is that some autocrats apparently intended to establish dynasties by having their sons succeed them in power.
Even in Bahrain, a Persian Gulf monarchy, the initial target for protesters was not the king but his uncle, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has served as prime minister for 40 years.
"The talking point about sons taking over was shorthand for something more complicated, which was that you have an ossified system that is not open to new people," says Barbara Bodine, an international affairs scholar at Princeton University. "It was because of the economic collapse that they took a much more critical look at the political systems."
Spreading The Word
The technology that facilitated the seismic changes in the Arab world this year, Bodine says, was satellite television. Residents of one country could watch protests taking place in another and compare how their governments were behaving in comparison with their neighbors.
Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel, "acted as a tremendously powerful transmission belt for what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "What happened in Tunisia could not have spread without television, but it could have spread without the Internet."
The global media also drew attention to uprisings. Military intervention by the U.S. and NATO were crucial to the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya.
And the Web and social media have emerged as tremendous organizing tools for protesters. People not only have access to independent sources of information, but the ability to mobilize easily.
For that reason, time-tested techniques for quashing protests — such as identifying the ringleaders and putting them in jail — may no longer have the same efficacy, says Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Now, you can have an opposition that has no leaders," he says.
Letting Off Steam
For that reason, the most repressive regimes do their best to clamp down on media.
But dictators who are adapting to the times are allowing, in general, more types of freedom than the totalitarian regimes of the past.
Puddington, the Freedom House vice president, notes that leaders in countries such as Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela can be relatively permissive when it comes to things that don't directly threaten their authority, such as travel and economic activity.
"You have relatively successful authoritarian regimes that have learned you don't have to control everything in order to control the levers of political power," Puddington says. "That's 21st century authoritarianism, which is this very sophisticated set of tactics designed to control governing power but leave other aspects of social life relatively free."
One of the great debates among academics and democracy activists is whether allowing greater amounts of personal freedom slowly undermines dictatorships, or serves to legitimize them.
But expectations for elections and global and social media have combined to make it harder for a single leader to maintain the reins of power for decades.
"Dictatorships who do modernize, because they choose to open up their country, will encounter problems of their own," says Rajan Menon, an international relations professor at Lehigh University. "An increasingly complex society cannot be run like North Korea."
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