The joy of cooking: Autocratic rule

The world no longer digests military coups as well as it used to. But now there's a new way for autocrats to cook up a grab for power.

This recipe relies more on lawyers than on colonels, and uses referendums and constitutional amendments, not tanks and assaults on presidential palaces, as key ingredients.

But the result is the same: a dictator who retains power for a long time.

Each country prepares this feast with its own spices. The formula that led to elections in Zimbabwe that kept Robert Mugabe in power after 29 years, for example, was more pungent than the one used in Russia, where despite elections and a new president, Vladimir Putin still pulls the strings.

In Iran, where they like their politics seasoned with religion and where the supreme chef, Ali Khamenei, described the overwhelming electoral victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "a divine sign," civilian militias beating protesters are a key additive.

In Latin America, an essential flavor has been the manipulation of the constitution. In Honduras, Manuel Zelaya tried to follow this recipe by rewriting his country's laws to stay in power for a second term, but the result was indigestion and a genuine, if flawed, attempt to inoculate a nation against the ravages of this dish.

Here, then, is the new recipe for autocrats around the globe.

Bon appetit!

Naim is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine.


Modern Dictatorship


Millions of poor people.

Unimaginable poverty coexisting with unfathomable wealth.

Injustice, social exclusion and racial discrimination.

Abundant corruption.

Complacent political and economic elites who are sure that "we are in control; nothing will happen here."

Discredited political parties.

A middle class disillusioned about democracy, politics and politicians.

A parliament, judiciary and armed forces weakened by prolonged marinating in a brew of indolence, inefficiency and corruption.

Media companies whose owners use them to promote their own commercial or electoral interests.

A foreign superpower neutralized or distracted by other priorities and congested with too many international emergencies.

An international public with a severe case of attention deficit disorder and general lack of interest in the details of how other nations are governed.

An external enemy easy to denounce as a threat to the nation: The CIA, a neighboring country, immigrants of a different skin color. If not, there are always the Jews and Mossad.

'People's militias' that are well-armed, well-trained and ready to break the heads of those who dare to protest against the regime. These militias need not be numerous. It is enough for their thuggish members to intimidate the population through acts of violence.


1. Shake well the population's poorest segment with a fiercely polarizing campaign. Rinse away harmony while bringing social conflicts to a boil.

2. Come to power through a democratic election, facilitated by corrupt and discredited political rivals and a good vote-buying team.

3. Hold other elections, but don't lose any. Elections aren't about democracy -- they're the garnish on your dish.

4. Change the top military command by promoting officers loyal to the president. Spy on all of them, all the time. Do the same with judges and magistrates.

5. Launch a campaign to change the constitution through a popular referendum. Coerce public employees to vote and make sure that some in the opposition campaign against participating in the referendum.

6. The new constitution should guarantee any and all rights to its citizens, especially the poorest, while minimizing their duties and obligations.

7. Bury inside the new constitution provisions that weaken or eliminate the separation of powers, concentrate authority in the president and allow for his indefinite reelection. Discredit, minimize, co-opt, buy and repress political opposition.

8. Control the media. Tolerate a few tiny outlets that are critical of the government but have a limited reach. They will be your cover against accusations that there is no freedom of the press.

9. Repeat elections. Indefinitely.