Moises Naim -- A New Recipe for Autocrats Around The World

By Moisés Naím
Sunday, August 2, 2009

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 new recipe relies more on lawyers than lieutenant colonels, and uses referendums and constitutional amendments, rather than tanks and assaults on presidential palaces, as key ingredients. But the result is the same: a dictator who, while keeping up the veneer of democracy, retains power for a long time.

As with all dishes that sweep the world, 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 continues to pull 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 angry protesters are a key additive.

In the Latin American adaptation of this nouvelle cuisine, 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.


  • Millions of poor people.
  • Lots of inequality.
  • 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.
  • An apathetic 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. It should be easy to buy a judge, senator or general.
  • 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 is ideal. A neighboring country also works. Or immigrants with a different skin color. If not, there are always the Jews and the 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 beatings, assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of violence.


1. Shake well the poorest segment of the population with a fiercely polarizing campaign. Sprinkle in resentment, political rancor and economic populism. Rinse away harmony while bringing social conflicts to a boil.

2. Come to power through a democratic election. This can be facilitated by having corrupt and discredited political rivals and a good vote-buying team. Stress the need to root out corruption and recover the wealth that the rich have stolen.

3. After winning that first election, hold other ones, 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. Reward loyal officers with material benefits and punish the unenthusiastic. Spy on all of them, all the time.

5. Do the same with judges and magistrates.

6. 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. Convince members of the opposition that their votes are irrelevant.

7. The new constitution should guarantee any and all rights to its citizens, especially the poorest, while minimizing their duties and obligations. Promise to alleviate poverty and extinguish inequality. Bury inside the new constitution provisions, concocted in complex legalese, that weaken or eliminate the separation of powers, concentrate authority in the president and allow for his indefinite reelection.

8. Discredit, minimize, co-opt, buy and repress the political opposition.

9. 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.

10. Repeat step number three. Indefinitely.

Bon appetit!

Moisés Naím is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine. A version of this story was published in the Spanish newspaper El País.

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