Eight “Democratically Elected” Autocrats

In response to the oft-repeated argument that Morsi was democratically elected and therefore definitionally cannot be described as governing in an undemocratic fashion, I have compiled here a (probably incomplete) list of world leaders who came to power by popular vote, and then proceeded to behave in distinctly un-democratic ways. It's also worth noting that many of these men came from civilian backgrounds, and were respected professionals, anti-colonial activists, or legislators before taking office.
I’ve included only leaders who rose to executive office through multiparty elections, excluding those (like Nasser), who gained some sort of imprimatur through referendums or one-party “elections”; those (like Mubarak), who first came to power without elections but later used them to maintain a façade of legitimacy; and those (like Hitler and Mussolini) who gained prominence through parliamentary elections, but took executive authority by extra-legal means.

  • Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan, 2003-present; Son and anointed successor of Heydar Aliyev, Ilham came to power in 2003 with a somewhat suspicious 76.84% of the vote. The opposition is unable to hold mass meetings in city centers, the independent press is suppressed, and his government has been listed by Transparancy International as one of the most corrupt in the world.
  • Juan Maria Bordaberry, Uruguay, 1972-1976; Elected in 1971, while Uruguay was embroiled in a counter-insurgency campaign against the leftist Tupamaro guerillas, Bordaberry signed off on a 1973 “soft coup”  against his own government that let him keep his title but transferred ultimate authority to the military. Then, he suspended the constitution and banned political parties and ruled by decree until 1976, when the military ousted him. During his presidency, more than 5,000 political prisoners were held, many of them tortured and killed. In 2006, Bordaberry was convicted of numerous crimes, including planning the murder of four opposition leaders. He died under house arrest in 2011.
  • Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia, 1964-1991; A nationalist leader and former political prisoner, Kaunda became Prime Minister in 1964, after his United National Independence Party won national elections. In October of the same year, he became the first president of newly independent Zambia, a position he held until international pressure forced him to hold multi-party elections in 1991. During his presidency, Kaunda declared a state of emergency, banned all opposition parties, controlled a rubber-stamp parliament, and promoted a cult of personality.
  • Ferdinand Marcos, Philippines, 1965-1986; A brilliant lawyer and successful senator, Marcos won his first election, in 1965, more or less fairly. The same cannot be said for his second (he famously withdrew $56 million from the state treasury to fund his campaign), after which he proclaimed martial law. By the time he was overthrown by a popular uprising in 1986,  he and his family had amassed $5-10 billion in ill-gotten gains (and over 1,000 pairs of shoes), and empowered a security apparatus responsible for the murder  of more than 3,000 political opponents, and the torture or imprisonment of over 100,000 more.
  • Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe, 1987-present; Gaining prominence for his role in the African liberation movement, Mugabe first won general elections in 1980 as Prime Minister, then assumed presidency in 1987 when the position of Prime Minister was abolished. He was re-elected in 1990, 1996, 2002, and (sort-of) 2008, in elections marred by claims of vote-rigging, violence, and intimidation.  His administration restricts freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and brutally suppresses opposition –most notably, perhaps, the 2007 crackdown on Morgan Tsvangirai‘s Movement for Democratic Change, and subsequent political violence employed to secure a second-round victory over Tsvangirai in 2008.
  • Francisco Macías Nguema, Equatorial Guinea, 1968-1979: Despite having thrice failed the civil service exam, Macías Nguema was elected as president of soon-to-be independent Equatorial Guinea in what was generally held to be a free and fair election. From there, Genocide Watch summarizes thus: After his election in September 1968 he installed a single-party system and assumed all powers, including the legislature and the judiciary. During his bloody rule approximately one third of the population was either exiled or murdered, targeting in particular the Bubi people. President Macías Nguema was notorious for his arbitrary executions of entire villages and families. He held mass executions in football stadiums while loudspeakers blared "Those were the days my friend. We thought they'd never end." In 1979 he was overthrown by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. The former president was put on trial and executed. The charges included the crime of genocide.”
  • Apolo Milton Obote, Uganda, 1966-1971, 1980-1985; One of the architects of Ugandan independence, Obote actually served as president twice (with a horrific Idi Amin interlude from 1971-1979). He became Prime Minister by legitimate means in 1962, but suspended the constitution, declared a state of emergency and seized the presidency in March 1966. In 1971, his brutal regime was overthrown by the even-more-brutal Idi Amin. After Idi Amin was ousted by Tanzanian troops in 1979, Obote got another chance, winning highly dubious multiparty elections in 1980. A guerilla war followed, accompanied by retribution meted out on civilians by Obote’s army; at the time Uganda had one of the worst human rights records in the world. Obote was ousted by a military coup in 1985, and died in exile.
  • Charles Taylor, Liberia, 1997-2003; Following the peace agreement that ended the First Liberian Civil War (a conflict he helped initiate), Taylor won a landslide victory in the 1975 presidential elections, campaigning on the slogan (!)"He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him." Despite this promising campaign platform, opposition to Taylor’s rule sparked the Second Liberian Civil War. In 2003, the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone charged Taylor with war crimes, and international pressure forced him to resign in August of that year. In April 2012, Taylor was convicted of 11 counts of aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity.