Autocracy on Trial

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Click Image to Enlarge the Autocracy Index from the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue

By Joshua Hastey

Even after the tumult of the Arab Spring, dictators and autocrats rule large stretches of the world, their horrific acts against their own people too often ignored by the world beyond the borders where they hold sway. In our fall issue, World Policy Journal devotes its Anatomy section to compile a list of the top 10 most autocratic regimes currently in power.

Our ranking of the world’s autocrats makes use of five indicators—freedom of the press, length of time in power, percent of GDP spent on the military, prison population per capita, and expert rankings—to produce an initial field of candidates, narrow that field to the 10 most despotic, then rank them. Since our index is focused on the extent to which regimes’ power is concentrated around an autocrat (rather than how unpleasant it is to live in a given country or how warlike its government), we encountered some surprising results. For example, Raúl Castro made the No. 9 spot on our index while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t make the top 10 (he came in at number 15). This was especially surprising given Raúl’s reputation as more of a reformer than his brother. In fact, Castro was the only leader of the final 10 to receive no nominations from any member of our expert panel. However, Cuba’s prison population and press restrictions were enough for Castro to edge out the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Joseph Kabila.

Moreover, a regime’s autocratic rule is rarely static. Than Shwe, the ruler of Myanmar in 2010, would have merited a high position in our index, but today’s president, Thein Sein, just eeked out of the Top 10. With decreases in military spending, fewer arrests, and a 10 point improvement in its “Press Freedom” score from Freedom House, President Thein Sein is showing that even hardened autocrats with a member of the ruling military junta can reform. Still, he's hovering on the edge of the list, and any military build-ups or press crackdown would likely see him back on. Most striking in our research was the wide variations in some indicators—term length and military spending—in contrast with the remarkable consistency in others. Term length showed a good deal of variation: from one and four years for Kim Jong Un and Raúl Castro respectively to 20 and 33 years for Robert Mugabe and Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Shorter term lengths do not necessarily mean a liberal regime—that Kim inherited his power less than a year ago on the death of his father does not imply that he is reforming—but longer term lengths do suggest autocratic rule.

Our pool of autocratic leaders did show remarkable consistency in their regimes’ restrictions of basic press freedoms. To compile this measure we used Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press 2012” index, a 1-100 scale where 100 represents no press freedom and zero represents no restriction. Across the board, the regimes in our top 10 use state power to stifle independent reporting, especially when such reporting may undermine the regime’s hold on power. In North Korea, all 12 news outlets are run by the state. In Equatorial Guinea, censorship, extrajudicial executions, and torture suppress the local media. On this scale, none of our top 10 candidates received a score lower than 80, most scored above 90, and seven of our top 10 are ranked among the Committee to Protect Journalists’ top 10 most censored countries. For comparison, the U.S. scores an 18 in press freedom, and even with the dangers and political pressure on journalists, Mexico scores a 62.

Finally, in comparing the data of potentially autocratic regimes, two apparent anomalies presented themselves. First, despite the conventional wisdom that it is easier to maintain an autocratic regime when surrounded by other illiberal governments, we found that Alexander Lukashenko’s hold over Belarus has been resilient, despite the proximity of liberal governments in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Likewise Ghana has attained relatively liberal regimes despite the authoritarian nature of many of its sub-Saharan neighbors. Second, as recent trends in Burma show, reforms are possible, even without sweeping Arab Spring style uprisings. These reforms may sometimes be slow and piecemeal, and at other times illusory and superficial. Over time, the World Policy Journal Autocracy Index can be used to help judge the significance of these reforms.


10. Joseph Kabila – Democratic Republic of Congo

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[Autocracy slideshow text by Ines Tamaddon]



Joshua Hastey and Ines Tamaddon are World Policy Journal editorial assistants.


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