What Is a Military Dictatorship? Definition and Examples

Military Dictator of Chile General Augusto Pinochet stands at attention.
Military Dictator of Chile General Augusto Pinochet stands at attention. Greg Smith/Corbis via Getty Images

A military dictatorship is a form of government in which the military holds most or all political power. Military dictatorships may be ruled by a single high-ranking military officer or by a group of such officers. Military dictatorships are notorious for human rights abuses and the denial of political and social freedoms.

Key Takeaways Military Dictatorship

  • In a military dictatorship is an autocratic type of government in which the military holds all or most power over the country.
  • The ruler in a military dictatorship may be a single high-ranking military officer or a group of such officers, referred to as a military junta.
  • Most military dictatorships take power after overthrowing the existing civilian government in a coup d'etat.
  • Historically, many military regimes have been noted for their brutal suppression of freedom and persecution of political opponents.
  • The number of countries ruled by military dictatorships began to fall sharply after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.
  • While Thailand remains the world’s last active military dictatorship, other notable examples of modern countries with histories of military rule include: Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Greece.

Military Dictatorship Definition and Characteristics

In a military dictatorship, military leaders exercise substantial or complete control of the people and functions of government. As an autocratic form of government, a military dictatorship may be ruled by either a single military strongman whose authority is unlimited or by a group of high-ranking military officers—a “military junta”—who can to some extent limit the dictator’s authority. 

During the 19th century, for example, many Latin American countries struggling to reorganize after being freed from Spanish colonial rule, allowed military dictators to take power. These charismatic self-proclaimed leaders, known as “caudillos,” usually led private guerilla armies that had won control of former Spanish-held territories before setting their sights on vulnerable national governments.

In most cases, military dictatorships come to power after the previous civilian government has been overthrown in a coup d'etat. Typically, the military dictator completely dissolves the civilian government. Occasionally, components of the civilian government structure may be restored after the coup d'etat but are strictly controlled by the military. In Pakistan, for example, while a series of military dictators have sporadically staged elections, they have fallen far short of the UN’s definition of “free and fair.” The secrecy of the ballot has been regularly compromised and military authorities often denied the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and movement.

Along with the suspension or revocation of constitutional rights and freedoms, an almost universal characteristic of a military dictatorship is the imposition of martial law or a permanent state of national emergency intended to distract the people with a constant fear of attack. Military regimes typically disregard human rights and go to extremes to silence political opposition. Ironically, military dictators have often justified their rule as a way of protecting the people from “harmful” political ideologies. For example, the threat of communism or socialism was often used to justify military regimes in Latin America.

Playing on the public assumption that the military is politically neutral, military dictatorships may attempt to portray themselves as the people’s “savior” from corrupt and exploitive civilian politicians. For example, many military juntas adopt titles such as Poland’s “National Liberation Committee” in the early 1980s, or Thailand’s current “Peace & Order Maintaining Council.”

Since their oppressive style of rule often spawns public dissent, military dictatorships often go out the same way they came in—through an actual or imminent coup d'etat or popular revolt.

Military Juntas

A military junta is a coordinated group of high-ranking military officers who exercise authoritarian or totalitarian rule over a country after taking power by force. Meaning “meeting” or “committee,” the term junta was first used about the Spanish military leaders who resisted Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 and later about the groups that helped Latin America win independence from Spain between 1810 and 1825. Like military dictatorships, military juntas often take power through a coup d'etat.

Under the rule of this military junta, up to 30,000 people went missing in Argentina.
Under the rule of this military junta, up to 30,000 people went missing in Argentina. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike pure military dictatorships, in which the power of a single dictator or “military strongman” is unlimited, the officers of a military junta can limit the dictator’s power.

Unlike military dictators, the leaders of military juntas may end martial law, wear civilian clothing, and appoint former military officers to maintain de-facto control over local governments and political parties. Rather than all functions of the national government, military juntas may choose to control a more limited range of areas, such as foreign policy or national security.

Military vs. Civilian Dictatorships

In contrast to a military dictatorship, a civilian dictatorship is a form of autocratic government that does not draw its power directly from the armed forces.

Unlike military dictatorships, civilian dictatorships do not have built-in access to an organized base of support like an army. Instead, civilian dictators take and hold on to power by controlling a dominant political party and the electoral process or by winning fanatical levels of popular support. Rather than the threat of military force, charismatic civilian dictators use techniques like mass distribution of bombastic propaganda and psychological warfare to create cult-like feelings of support and nationalism among the people. Civilian dictatorships that depend on political domination tend to be longer-lasting than personalistic cult-supported dictatorships.

Without the automatic support of the armed forces, civilian dictators are less likely than military dictators to involve the country in foreign wars and to be ousted by insurrection or revolt. Civilian dictatorships are also more likely to be replaced by democracies or constitutional monarchies than are military dictatorships.

Examples of 20th Century Military Dictatorships

Soldiers ride atop tanks in the streets of Santiago, Chile, as Army General Augusto Pinochet is sworn in as President.
Soldiers ride atop tanks in the streets of Santiago, Chile, as Army General Augusto Pinochet is sworn in as President. Bettmann/Getty Images

Once common throughout Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East, the prevalence of military dictatorships has been declining since the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it became harder for military regimes to seize power by using the threat of communism to gain the support of powerful Western democracies like the United States.

While Thailand remains the only country currently ruled by a military dictatorship, dozens of other countries have been under military rule at some point during the 20th century.

Thailand

On May 22, 2014, the caretaker government of Thailand was overthrown in a bloodless coup d'etat led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, commander of the Royal Thai Army. Prayuth established a military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), to govern the country. The junta repealed the constitution, declared martial law, and banned all forms of political expression. In 2017, the NCPO issued an interim constitution granting itself almost total power and establishing a puppet legislature, which unanimously elected Prayuth prime minister.

Brazil

From 1964 to 1985, Brazil was controlled by an authoritarian military dictatorship. After taking power in a coup d'etat, commanders of the Brazilian Army, backed by anti-communist interests, including the United States, enacted a new constitution that restricted freedom of speech and outlawed political opposition. The military regime gained popular support by encouraging nationalism, promising economic growth, and rejecting communism. Brazil officially restored democracy in 1988.

Chile

On September 11, 1973, Chile’s socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a coup d'etat backed by the United States. Over the next 17 years, a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet orchestrated the most brutal period of human rights abuses in Chilean history. During what it called the “national reconstruction,” Pinochet’s regime outlawed political participation, executed over 3,000 suspected dissidents, tortured tens of thousands of political prisoners, and forced some 200,000 Chileans into exile. Although Chile returned to democracy in 1990, the people continue to suffer from the effects of Pinochet’s military dictatorship on political and economic life.

Argentina

After overthrowing President Isabel Perón in a coup d'etat on March 24, 1976, a junta of right-wing military officers ruled Argentina until democracy was restored in December 1983. Operating under the official name of the National Reorganization Process, the junta persecuted social minorities, imposed censorship, and placed all levels of government under military control. During Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War” period of military dictatorship, as many as 30,000 citizens were killed or “disappeared.” In 1985, five leaders of the former ruling military junta were convicted of crimes against humanity.

Greece

From 1967 to 1974, Greece was ruled by an extreme right-wing military dictatorship known as the Regime of the Colonels. On April 21, 1976, a group of four Greek Army colonels overthrew the caretaker government in a coup d'etat. In just the first week of its reign, the junta jailed, tortured, and exiled over 6,000 suspected political opponents in the name of protecting Greece from communism. Their actions were so swift and brutal that by September 1967 the European Commission of Human Rights had charged the Regime of the Colonels with multiple gross violations of human rights.

Sources and Reference

  • Geddes, Barbara. “Military Rule.” Annual Review of Political Science, Volume 17, 2014, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-polisci-032211-213418.
  • Merieau, Eugenie. “How Thailand Became the World’s Last Military Dictatorship.” The Atlantic, March 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/03/thailand-military-junta-election-king/585274/.
  • Skidmore, Thomas E. “The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-1985.” Oxford University Press, March 8, 1990, ISBN-10: 0195063163.
  • Constable, Pamela. “A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet.” W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, ISBN 0393309851.
  • Lewis, Paul H. “Guerrillas and Generals: The Dirty War in Argentina.” Praeger, October 30, 2001, ISBN-10: 0275973603.
  • Athenian, Richard. “Inside the colonels' Greece.” W. W. Norton, January 1, 1972, ISBN-10: 0393054667.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is a Military Dictatorship? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/military-dictatorship-definition-and-examples-5091896. Longley, Robert. (2021, February 17). What Is a Military Dictatorship? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/military-dictatorship-definition-and-examples-5091896 Longley, Robert. "What Is a Military Dictatorship? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/military-dictatorship-definition-and-examples-5091896 (accessed October 23, 2021).