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Military dictatorship

Related subjects: Systems of government

Background Information

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A military dictatorship is a form of government wherein the political power resides with the military; it is similar but not identical to a stratocracy, a state ruled directly by the military.

Nature and typology

Like any dictatorship, a military dictatorship may be official or unofficial, and as a result may not actually qualify as stratocratic (some military dictators, like Panama's Manuel Noriega, are nominally subordinate to the civil government). Mixed forms also exist, where the military exerts a very strong influence without being entirely dominant.

The declaration by which a military coup d'état is made official is called a pronunciamento, from the Spanish pronunciamiento, 'proclamation'.

The typical military dictatorship in Latin America was ruled by a junta (derived from a Spanish word which can be translated as "conference" or "board"), or a committee composed of several officers, often from the military's most senior leadership, but in other cases (e.g. when their military superiors remained loyal to, or indeed were, the previous regime) less senior, as evidenced by the term colonels' regime. Other military dictatorships are entirely in the hands of a single officer (also called a caudillo), usually the senior army commander. In either case, the chairman of the junta or the single commander may often personally assume office as head of state.

In the Middle East and Africa, military governments more often came to be led by a single powerful person, and were autocracies in addition to military dictatorships. Leaders like Idi Amin, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Gamal Abdul Nasser worked to develop a personality cult and became the face of the nation inside and outside their countries.

Most military dictatorships are formed after a coup d'état has overthrown the previous government. One very different pattern was the one followed by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, which began as a one-party state ruled by the Ba'ath Party, but over the course of its existence turned into a military dictatorship (as its leaders donned uniforms and the military became closely involved in the government). Conversely, other military dictatorships may gradually restore significant components of civilian government while the senior-most military commander still maintains supreme political power. In Pakistan, ruling Generals Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Pervez Musharraf (1999 till 2007) have held singular referendums to elect themselves President of Pakistan for a further several years, as well as general elections voting in civilian Prime Ministers (politically subordinate to the President).

In the past, military juntas have justified their rule as a way of bringing political stability for the nation or rescuing it from the threat of "dangerous ideologies". In Latin America the threat of communism was often used, while in the Middle East the desire to oppose Israel and later Islamic fundamentalism proved an important motivating pattern. Military regimes tend to portray themselves as non-partisan, as a "neutral" party that can provide interim leadership in times of turmoil, and also tend to portray civilian politicians as corrupt and ineffective. One of the almost universal characteristics of a military government is the institution of martial law or a permanent state of emergency.

Although there are exceptions, military regimes usually have little respect for human rights and use whatever means necessary to silence political opponents. A military regime is also rarely willing to leave power unless forced to by popular revolt, whether active or imminent.

Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East have been common areas for military dictatorships. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the military often has more cohesion and institutional structure than most of the civilian institutions of society.

Military dictatorships can be contrasted with other forms of dictatorship. For example, in most current and historical Communist states, the centre of power rests among civilian party officials, and very careful measures (such as political commissars and frequent rotations) are taken to prevent the military from exercising independent authority.

Since the 1990s, military dictatorships have become less common. Reasons for this include the fact that military dictatorships no longer have much international legitimacy, as well as the fact that many militaries having unsuccessfully ruled many nations are now inclined not to become involved in political disputes. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union made it more difficult for military regimes to use the threat of communism as justification for their actions, or to gain support from foreign sources.

As the Cold War began to wind down, in the Middle East, regimes such as those of Syria and Egypt that were once clearly military dictatorships have switched to other forms of despotism.


The following lists are probably incomplete, especially before World War II.

Nations currently under military rule

  • Fiji - since the 2006 Fijian coup d'état; see also 1987 Fijian coups d'état and 2000 Fijian coup d'état
  • Libya - since the 1969 Libyan coup d'état resulted in Muammar al-Gaddafi seizing power
  • Myanmar (Burma) - since the 1962 Burmese coup d'état resulted in Ne Win seizing power; currently the Tatmadaw (armed forces) still leads under the auspices of the State Peace and Development Council
  • Thailand - since the 2006 Thai coup d'état. There was a democratic election on December 23, 2007. The official election results are not finalized yet.

Nations with a legacy of military dictatorship(s)

In Africa

In the Americas

In Asia

In Europe

1) In 1958, Martial Law was imposed not by the military but by the elected civilian President Iskander Mirza,the army Chief at the time Ayub Khan, opposed this venture. Several weeks later Ayub and the cabinet forced Mirza away, Ayub did not assume the mantel of President, rather he was the Chief Martial Law Administratot (a position given to him by Mirza in the original declaration) and he resigned as army chief immediately. He would not be President until elected to that position in 62.

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