Suppose I am elected the leader of the government (president, head of state, etc.) of a present-day Western style Earth nation. My government has solid support in my country's parliament, but not unrestricted support. (So I can't just propose a law that, say, outlaws every other political party.) My country is not part of a political amalgation that might have a real ability to influence my actions (such as a country being a member of the EU).

I have good reason to believe that I have a full term's worth 4-6 years of this situation, I have a reasonable chance (but is not guaranteed) of being reelected for at least one more term under the present election rules, and I believe that the people of my nation failed at the democratic experiment.

I have limited ability to influence mainstream media; I can of course put various spin on different press releases and how things are presented from those working within my government, but I cannot at present directly influence what media chooses to publish.

What general steps can I take to reverse the earlier transition to a democracy? Ideally with a large fraction of the people not noticing before the change is complete enough that my ability to remain the head of a government of my choosing is not significantly impaired.

Do u mean just keeping at power indefinitely or make cruel acts like mass killings etc? These two varians are very different. Also a big question whether you want to be a popular "dictator" that is supported by the people or hold power against the peiople's will. – Anixx

I am not interested in killing large portions of the population, at least not initially. At the outset, I simply want to ensure that I, or someone I can influence the selection of, remains in power.


14 Answers 14


Generally this is done by creating or inflating an external threat. In most political systems dealing with external threats to security efficiently is one of the main reasons for having an executive leader. And since another is having a single voice in dealing with external powers, dealing with external threats usually falls under the leaders authority in more than one way. Other possible routes are that the executive is usually in charge of gathering intelligence and preparing the emergency services and the military to possible threats. So an external threat increases your authority in multiple ways.

The main attraction though is that defending against external threats is popular with the people which silences or marginalizes your critics. Also if the threat is something you inflated with your own actions your ability to deal with it will almost certainly exceed the expectations of the people and you will end up looking like an effective leader without actually needing to achieve anything. If the threat scenarios people fear only exist in your propaganda, you have to fail pretty bad before they actualize and you will look like you failed.

Additionally, most countermeasures against executive overreach are meant to be effective under normal circumstances expected by legislators at the time. Increasing the apparent threat level almost guarantees that the oversight of your actions to defend against that threat will, even if they are strictly and efficiently enforced, be utterly inadequate. Even the best fire suppression mechanisms can't really protect a building against a thermobaric weapon. Similarly oversight systems are not really effective when the executive responds to an imminent threat in entirely new ways. This would be very easy for your leader to manipulate.

The next step is to control the media. Fortunately the mass media is already predisposed to strongly support issues that are already supported by people, such as national security. This means that media will happily self-censor itself and generally assist in helping you give an appearance that the country has a strong, effective leadership with the full support of all responsible people in its time of need. After all, that is the responsible thing for the media to do when the country really needs to be united to deal with an external threat. Any irresponsible media that fails to be responsible can be dealt with on a case by case basis. The simplest method is to have wealthy supporters to buy the media. Or discover a misstep that allows replacing the leadership of the media by people loyal to you.

Once you have even limited control of the media you can manipulate the public discussion. This allows you to discredit potential political opponents and challengers before they know they oppose your plans. That is a pretty big tactical advantage. Combine this with strong and effective support of true patriots responding to the needs of the nation and after a few elections you'll control the representative body that supposedly oversees your actions and limits your power.

The easiest way to deal with term limits is to have none. Simply move to "more democratic" parliamentary system where the executive power is mostly held by the prime minister. Prime ministers generally have no term limits since they can in theory be dismissed by the parliament at any time if it becomes necessary. Fortunately this check on your power only works if the country has a strong democratic tradition and everyone involved, including the prime minister, is committed to it. It is much easier to have a national referendum on moving to more democratic and responsive system than to have one on making yourself leader for life. And the result is the same.

Also worth noting is that your scenario assumes that a relatively smart insider is convinced that the democracy is failing. This implies that he will have no problems of finding allies that share that belief and will see him as the better option to unmanaged failure. It also implies that most of the population can be made to believe the same once you have even limited control of media. This drastically limits resistance to the takeover as long as you make effort to look personally honest and efficient. You don't need to be either, just make sure that it is obvious you try. After all, the alternatives are being discredited daily by the mass media as part of uniting the country behind its leader during the crisis. So you'll look like the best alternative by default, if you just make the effort.

As for external threats you can use. You can opportunistically use whatever happens, such as terrorism or ethnic divisions in neighbouring countries and inflate it to be a major issue people concerned with. You can manufacture a crisis by interfering with the internal affairs of your neighbours or by using an old territorial dispute. Or you can externalize a domestic issue such as an ethnic, religious, or sexual minority to be "others".

Usually leaders us a combination of the above as opportunities rise. It should be noted that almost all leaders think they should have more power so they could deal with issues more effectively. It is a characteristic of people who naturally rise to leadership positions. Consequently even leaders who don't actually want to be dictators and can genuinely be committed to democracy often resort to some of the tactics described. This is why executive leader absolutely needs to have oversight of his actions and checks on his powers to avoid gradually slipping towards dictatorship. More importantly, this means that your leader will not really appear that different from other leaders even if he intends to a dictator. It is practical for him to be discreet about it and he totally should.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ Of course, “external threat” includes “terrorism” which can come from the inside. Makes it easier to officially fight targets inside your own borders… $\endgroup$
    – Holger
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 15:20
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ Watching episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Star Wars (the newer ones) shows how Palpatine rose from a senator to emperor, overthrowing democracy using war as an excuse. $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2015 at 15:29
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ This reads like "the handbook for the popular dictator" written by Putin and Erdogan. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 10:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "If the threat scenarios people fear only exist in your propaganda, you have to fail pretty bad before they actualize and you will look like you failed." Day 1 - "Citizens of Elbonia, we must unite against the unicorn threat." Day 2 - "We have surrendered to the unicorns." $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 0:40
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Another trick if you can't outright control the media is to discredit it, casting unfavorable coverage of your regime as being blatant faked propaganda. Meanwhile, you use alternate mechanisms for disseminating information ('alternative facts', if you will) to a fervent populist base, which then becomes your primary lever for applying political pressure. It's a pretty far-fetched scenario though. $\endgroup$
    – Dan Bryant
    Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 15:46

Generally people will give up freedoms for something else that they need more, like stability or security.

In 90s Russia economy was terrible and unpredictable, and the army seemed powerless to stop a bunch of rag tag rebels, Putin was able to dial back a lot of democracy because under him economy and military power improved a lot. People associate him stability and believe that a "strong hand" is needed to maintain it, even if that strength comes at the expense of liberty.

In the United States following the September 11th attacks many people felt scared and were willing to forgive indefinite detentions, wiretapping and CIA kidnappings in the name of security.

It also helps if the state ostensibly goes after people that the majority of the population sees as "different", Chechens, Muslims, gays what have you. Historically people have shown willingness to circumvent freedoms as long as they think that they are not the target (Yes it's bad that CIA abducts people and sends them to Jordan for torture, but since neither me nor my friends are Muslim or have scary beards it isn't my immediate problem).

Another way to look at it, is what some communist leaders called a "salami tactic", each time you slice just a thin sliver of freedoms away, so that it it doesn't seem worth it to rebel because freedoms being taken away seem minor (oh, they are only prohibiting abortion after N month, not making it completely illegal; oh they are are only prohibiting military-style guns, not all of them etc) but over time society becomes less and less free and it each time it makes it easier to justify more limitations because of what society has accepted already.


If your nation is similar to the U.S. you can simply get into a major war (one that is big, but you know you can win in a few decades) and declare emergency powers for the duration of said war. Suspend personal liberties and execute/lock up anyone who speaks against you as an anarchist/terrorist.

Make sure the war lasts at least a decade so that newer generations do not know of or have any recollection of the relative freedom they had under Democracy. When the war is over the parliament should be similar to the Senate in Star Wars(don't hate me for the reference to Star Wars), a skeleton of its old self and merely be a puppet.

You can now post armed military "guards" around all of them to "ensure their protection" (and also their sure and swift passing of all your laws and decrees). The people will still have some semblance of freedom and you might face one or two minor rebellions, but in the end this should work out.

Eventually the need to keep the parliament to keep the people in line will go away and you can dissolve it. Congrats, you are now the sole dictator!

You could also follow Rome's example and keep your parliament active to better control the people (after all, they have a representative in Parliament).

As stated in the comment by @AdamDavis You would need either some degree of the war taking place within you country or much civil disorder (possibly via a small uprising) to justify "guarding" the senators and patrolling the streets for "criminals" with armed professional soldiers.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "You can now post armed military "guards" around all of them" The war needs to be on the ground in the country transitioning to dictatorship. The people need to feel unsafe so that the presence of additional military is, by comparison, "safer". Other than that, this is the answer I would have posted. $\endgroup$
    – Adam Davis
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ What's the reason of guarding senators? I see that you probably took example from Nazi Germany but the "guarding" by the SA during the adoption of the Enabling Act had different purpose. Any way, all parliaments in the world normally guarded by the police. One does not need a pretext for doing it. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Commented May 10, 2015 at 21:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx I meant the soldiers would remind the senators who is in charge and basically threaten them into submission. A power display by the president. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @DJMethaneMan any legislature is guarded by default. What was in Germany was quite different thing. The point was that those who were guarding were not police or soldiers but the SA (party paramilitaries) this was very important at the moment, but after the Nazis took power the Reichstag was guarded by the police as usual. $\endgroup$
    – Anixx
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 14:24

This depends on what do you mean under democracy and dictatorship. In most cases you would be able to keep the democratic procedures while having firm control over the political system.

Your first task would be control over judiciary, media and removing constitutional restrictions on the term in power.

If your party has the majority in the legislature you may try to outlaw the most potent political opponents under various pretexts:

  • They are foreign agents and pursue the foreign agenda of the country X. They are separatists/secessionists. We need a law against foreign agents and others who are unpatriotic.

  • They are immoral, against our religion, sexual customs etc. We need a law on protecting our values: morals, customs and religion.

  • They are seeking to restore the prevuous regime, before the last revolution. They are commies or nazis or the monarchists seeking to return to power. They are guilty of genocide. And their ideology is criminal.

  • They are just extremists. There should be a law against extremism.

You can also try to propose a new constitution which would keep the form of democracy but put no effective restrictions on the president's powers: the president appoints the judges, the president has the veto right, the president can dissolve the legislature and call new elections, the president can be dismissed only if he commits a grave crime, which can be decided upon by an agreement of courts, the legislature and each region's legislature as well. After that the legislature will adopt any law you want because otherwise you call for legislature's dissolution.

You should also to set up close relations with the rich people, especially those who controls the media.

  • $\begingroup$ If the elected leaders are puppets of a corrupting power, then it is not necessary to eliminate term limits; the puppets are replaced as needed. And control of the judiciary is easy when judges are appointed and confirmed by the puppets. The media is the tricky thing, and the key. $\endgroup$ Commented May 10, 2015 at 6:21

The following historical examples read like a recipe, to be applied as local circumstances fit:

  • Caesar, Rome, 50BC
  • Napoleon, France, 1799
  • Lenin, Russia, 1917
  • Trujillo, Dominican Republic, 1930
  • Hitler, Germany, 1933
  • Mobutu, Zaire, 1960
  • Marcos, Philippines, 1972
  • Lukashenko, Belarus, 1996 “Europe’s last dictatorship”

By nature all are constitutional dictatorships or self-coups, sometimes supported by an outside party.

  • 8
    $\begingroup$ This does not explain how to make a transition, it just gives examples. It would be better as a comment. $\endgroup$
    – Vincent
    Commented Sep 13, 2015 at 16:01

Read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer. In it he details the steps Adolf Hitler took in transitioning from a democracy to a dictatorship. In addition to invoking an external threat, i.e. the Communists, he also created within the NAZI party institutions that paralleled those of the Weimar Republic, so that when he invested himself with plenary powers he was immediately prepared with functioning institutions populated by party members that could take over their counterparts in the Republic, e.g. the functions of treasury, defense, state, commerce, etc.


Here in Brazil we have a very close situation. The best way to keep the "power" on you, is:

  • Add tax on everything, I mean, every transaction in the country, so until the product comes to the client hands, it will be too expensive, and the people will become poor.
  • Then, with a poor population, you must break the country's education. With low education the people will become easy to manipulate.
  • Use the media to manipulate the poor and uneducated population. Remember: the easiest way to do it is to give "small amount of money" to the families, it must be like $20 per son, it will make the population grow and the poor consolidate.

With a large population, that is poor and uneducated, and who believes that the government is helping them, you will have unbreakable power. Then you have two options:

  • Keep the democracy, by sharing the power with a friend (one mandate for each one, as Lula and Dilma), that creates an makeup dictatorship
  • Change to dictatorship
  • $\begingroup$ You use the term "poor and donkey" twice in here. That doesn't make any sense in English. Is it a direct translation of some Portuguese/Brazilian idiom? $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2015 at 14:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler, sorry i forget that donkey (Burro) is a local expression. Donkey/Burro means someone fool (I'm using this tool as an way to learn and train English) $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2015 at 19:43

Harass, exclude and impoverish the opposition.

This happens in quite a large number of the asian "democracies" (see Singapore as an example). Make sure that every wrong doing of those who seek to oppose you is punished, no matter how trivial. Make laws that sound reasonable, but can be used to fine/sue almost anyone - then direct your justice system to only really go after a)general criminals and disliked people and b)your political opponents. Make it clear that sucess in business relies on staying on yoour good side, and bring down any wealthy people or businesses that donate to your political opponents - through regulating their industries, through calling on audit after audit on the company, to provide privelidged access to their corporate rivals.

At the same time, promote those in government/civil service those who go along with you. The police chiefs who will order their men to surpress a legal but annoying protest; the civil servants who blackballed the companies that angered you; assist the companies of the corporate leaders who donated and supported you.

You'll probably have to put up through all this with technically being a democracy - but you can pretty much ensure clinging on to power for a long, long time.

  • $\begingroup$ Eventually, if he is annoying the ultra rich enough and they don't want him in power they will pay to have him assassinated. Doubly so if he is bad for buisness. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:21

Seems to me the bigger challenge is how to PREVENT someone from doing this. We've seen it happen over and over again in history, from Julius Caesar to Adolf Hitler to, etc.

How to do it? Several things come to mind.

One: Incrementalism. You don't just announce, the day after you won the election with 51% of the vote, that you are abolishing the constitution, declaring yourself dictator for life, sentencing all political opponents to prison camps, etc. Rather, you take small steps. You roll back one right here and impose one new restriction there. Then people grumble about the lost freedom, but no one action is big enough to trigger massive protests or armed rebellion. Until it's too late.

Two: Don't admit that you are making yourself dictator. Explain that of course you believe in all these important rights and freedoms, you are not taking them away, you have no intention of taking them away, you are just imposing some common-sense restrictions to prevent the abuse of these freedoms.

Three: When you expand your power, do it on an issue where a lot of people in the country agree with you. Don't violate the constitution to ram through a policy that 90% of the country think is a bad idea. Do it on something where a majority agree with you, or at least a strong minority. Then when opponents challenge your power grab, you can confuse the issue by talking about how they are trying to block this popular policy, and divert attention from your power grab.

Four: Alternative to number three, grab power using issues that no one cares about, and then next time around you can use this as a precedent. Little known fact: Nowhere does the U.S. Constitution give the Supreme Court the authority to strike down a law as "unconstitutional". Indeed this idea was proposed at the constitutional convention and voted down. The court simply decided it must have power in the case of Marbury v Madison in 1803. And the case they picked to expand their power: what paperwork is required for someone to become a justice of the peace in Washington DC. I doubt many people cared about the outcome of this case other than the handful of people who had been appointed justice of the peace and whose jobs were now in jeopardy.

Five: Never say that you want to make yourself dictator because you are power hungry or want to feed your own ego. Everything you do is always for the good of the people. You just have no choice but to defy the legislature: you tried to get them to pass this vitally needed law, and they refused. You had to take action or all these terrible things would happen.

Six: Demonize your political opponents. Whenever someone challenges your power grabs, accuse him of evil motives. He's opposing you to protect his own power, out of pure partisanship, because he's a racist or a Nazi or whatever insult works in your societey, he wants to oppress and exploit the people and you're trying to protect the people from folks like him, etc.

Seven: Find ways to prevent your opponents from organizing against you. For example, push through campaign finance laws that are carefully constructed to make it difficult for opponents to raise money, while interfering only minimally with you. Of course you never say that the goal is to handicap your opponents, it's always to "fight corruption" and "make the system more fair for everyone" and the like. Stack the organizations that enforce the law with your partisans. Then when your friends break the law, you ignore it or give them a slap on the wrist. When your opponents break the law, you come down hard, denounce them for trying to subvert democracy, and get key leaders put in jail. Make the law is complex so your opponents can never be sure exactly what they have to do to obey the law.

Eight: Get the media on your side. There are many ways to do this. In the long term, have your friends join media organizations and work their way up, until they fill the ranks. Get wealthy friends to buy important news outlets. Make friends with media leaders: tell them how important they are and how valuable to democracy and so on, give them "exclusive interviews", pass laws that are popular with the media now and then, etc. If you can do this, then you can make sure that the public hears a version of events favorable to you. When you slip up, they can bury the story. When your opponents slip up, they can trumpet it over and over. Oh, and to make this most effective, in editorial pages and talk shows, DON'T have just your side presented. Rather, have your side presented by articulate, attractive people. Then have your opponents' side presented by people who are carefully chosen to be totally unlikable, and who present the weakest arguments. No matter how fair and wise and well-reasoned your opponents are, you can always find SOMEONE who agrees with them who is ugly and stupid and selfish and so on. And if that actually gets hard, you can create fake organizations that will claim to side with your opponents but are really your stooges.

Nine: Long term: Get the education system on your side. Similar to eight. Then have them indoctrinate the next generation. Subtly at first, of course. Get history classes to teach how the failed policies of your opponents did so much harm to the country. Get economics classes to teach how much more propserous the nation would be if only we had economic policies that put more power in the hands of the central government. Teach members of minority groups that they are helpless and powerless and need a powerful central government to protect them from exploitation. Etc.

Well, I could go on. Note that none of this is ideas original with me. They're all things I've observed others do, mostly thinking of U.S. politics.


You have 2 general options.

  1. Get enough people in the legislative body to change the constitution (often 2/3 of the elected officials). This will take time and propaganda.

  2. Stage a coup. Attack the current rulers and take power away from them at gunpoint.

You can combine the two by carrying out option #1 most of the way and then using a set of "terrorists" to attack you and assassinate some of your opponents. Then declare national emergency and use the elevated power to suspend future elections until you get enough support for the constitution change.

Most of the details will depend on the specifics of the existing constitution.


In two separate steps:

  1. Declare political assassination a capital crime. Because that's a serious attack on our democracy and freedom, isn't it?
  2. Give yourself the ability to pardon criminals who commit capital crimes. Because every judicial system needs a safeguard like this, doesn't it? Hide it well in the fine-print of a much larger judicial reform which offers something for everyone to make sure it will get through.

Congratulations, you just gave yourself the right to order the assassination of anyone who opposes you. When you want to get someone out of the way, proclaim that you will pardon anyone who is going to kill them. You don't even need your personal death squad. Someone will be crazy enough to do it when they know they will get away with it. There is no high-ranking politician in the world who didn't make some mortal enemies throughout their career with some unpopular decision or another.

Now go on and propose changes to the constitution however you want. Nobody will dare to speak up against them.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ That's just asking for someone to assassinate you and then be pardoned by your successor. $\endgroup$
    – Fhnuzoag
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ Tom Kratman's Buckman character did this in the back-story of Kratman's novel Caliphate. $\endgroup$
    – Jasper
    Commented Nov 4, 2015 at 5:50
  1. During Your Term, Fix Some Legitimate Problems: People seem to forget that some (not all) dictators come to power because they are able to solve problems that others had difficulty dealing with. A firm leader can continue to solve certain issues while ignoring due process and skepticism of the general population/influential people who fear progress. Before you character becomes a dictator, have the character solve some problems and do things like:

Basically, have your character solve many of the nation's ills during his remaining time in office in a way that makes leader of the old system seem incompetent. Solve enough problems to create:

  1. Form a cult of personality: You want to slowly have a group of people generally love the leader to the point they would do almost anything for said leader and see that leader as a sacred figure. Your character won't have to be a dictator yet to reach this step: many presidents have been said to have a cult of personality from Theodore Roosevelt to Donald Trump. People will naturally come to see you as a great authority who can essentially do no wrong and will fanatically defend your decisions.

  2. Form political positions that can form you your own ideology. Many great leaders/dictators form positions that change the status quo enough to be considered their own ideology. This allows you to be part of history, have your followers feel like they make history by joining you, and guarantees that even your opposition will constantly study you and try to learn how your mind works.

  3. Maintain the illusion that democracy is still there: What many people forget is that the Soviet Union and other Marxist socialist/lower stage communist nations technically were democratic, but there was only one political party to vote for since they acted as the vanguard for the people (ie. group from the proletariat to prevent people from going back to capitalism). Even the United States and its two party system has led to people calling the country a civil oligarchy since both parties have near full control while cow-toeing to the wealthy elite. You want a system like this: technically a democracy, but where you and your constituents have most of the power through state ownership, private ownership, or indirect ownership through the previously mentioned cult of personality as well as charisma.


1) Subvert the judicial system--you don't need the whole thing, just the people at the top.

The objective is to keep the misdeeds of your people from being prosecuted.

2) Impeach or prosecute those who stand in your way.

The farther you go down this road the less careful you have to be to maintain appearances.


Usually _ history recalled that _ give the real power to a military group and create a virtual character.Here, it is like that since 50 years. Neron was one of the first to initiate this step_virtual power was religious and women of the senators : in fact, it is the same thing at this period_ and the real power was the crime as a right : in fact, done by the richer (the master=pleasure) and executed by another servants (the hunters=gift). The power of a democracy or not, is made by the number of the people who believe or not in this future : as soon as you have not this one ; the result is the other so it does not matter how to do but how to obtain it from the people is the most difficult : a tyranny is also the will of every body.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This has....odd punctuation, to say the least. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:04

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .