Dictatorships have dominated global politics for hundreds of years, from the pharaohs of Egypt to the absolute monarchs of Europe. Though democracy has since spread to much of the world, about a third of today’s countries are still ruled by dictatorship. And yet, compared to democracies, we know very little about how dictatorships work, who the key political actors are, and where decision-making powers lie. Political processes are opaque, and information is often intentionally distorted. Political survival depends not on maintaining the favor of voters, as in democracies, but on securing the backing of a considerably smaller coalition of supporters. The absence of a reliable third party to enforce compromises among key players means that power-sharing deals lack credibility and the threat of forced ouster is omnipresent. Uncertainty pervades authoritarian politics.
Modern autocrats respond to this uncertain environment in a variety of ways. They use political parties, legislatures, elections, and other institutions typically associated with democracies to lessen their risk of overthrow. Despite the façade of democracy, these institutions are key components of most autocrats’ survival strategies; those that incorporate them last longer in power than those that do not. The specific ways in which autocratic institutions are used and the extent to which they can constrain leadership choices to prevent consolidation of power into the hands of a single individual, however, vary enormously from one dictatorship to the next. Better understanding the conditions that push autocracies down a path of collegial versus strongman rule remains a critical task, particularly given that the latter is associated with more war, economic mismanagement, and resistance to democratization.