One of the benefits of having served in the CIA’s clandestine service is that this author was afforded the opportunity to see the world — and not just the ‘civilized’ democratic world. Often, America’s intelligence professionals are sent off to far away dictatorships and closed authoritarian states. Such experiences provide the observant operations officer with a plethora of examples of how to run a government without the pesky interference of ‘the people.’
However, even the most authoritarian states these days must often provide the veneer of democratic legitimacy in order to sell themselves, both to their own people and internationally. These leaders and states have consequently shown remarkable innovation in developing various techniques that aid in such efforts. Your conscientious author has tried to compile here some of those techniques, as a sort of guidebook — if you will — on winning and holding unrivaled and unchallenged power. You must promise though, dear reader, that you will only use these techniques for benign purposes.
First, it is easy to win an election if you are the only one running. If all other comers are terrified of harassment, imprisonment, physical suffering, or even death, then chances are you will find yourself pleasantly unchallenged. You are then free to stroll through the election like a white knight — the only one brave enough to defend your people and the nation. “What a hero!” they shall proclaim.
Establish a cult of personality
Once you have cleared the decks of real challengers (maybe you are allowing a few of the token variety, to bestow some electoral legitimacy to your win), you need to establish for yourself a suitable cult following. This should be replete with iconography, an heroic or even deified backstory, legends, symbols, devout followers, and possibly even, as required, songs and movies devoted to your life. Really, you are only limited by your imagination here. The more you can fashion yourself a divine ruler, the harder it will be to reject you. Everyone loves a god!
Harness the enemy
What’s the best way to endear yourself to the people, and to convince them that you are indispensable to the good of the nation? You must make them fear national existence without you. The best way to do that is to present a lurking, menacing, hated enemy at the gates, ready to conquer the nation. Against such an enemy, you will act as the Great Savior. After all, if you were to fail to keep or assume leadership of the country, God only knows how soon the enemy would storm the country and take over. The horror! Your people must understand that they need you, that without you, they are in mortal danger.
Harness the people
Few things are as potent a force as the power of the people in a common cause. Make that common cause you, by anticipating what will make the people happy, and giving it to them. Do they want cheap fuel? Subsidize the oil. Do they want cheap food? Encourage them to farm, and control food prices. Do they want devotion to the one true God and religion? Show them that no one is as pious as you, and that you are the Defender of the Faith. If you make yourself thoroughly one of them, you will bind yourself to them, and they to you. Then, you can use that power to continue your reign.
Keep your thumb on the people
While harnessing the power of the people is important (see above), at times, you must also be ready to keep the people down. They are simple, after all, and might sometimes fail to understand the importance of you preserving your power. At those times, they might rise up, or simply demonstrate against you. This is unacceptable. You might need to resort to imprisonment of popular leaders and their families, or banishment to labor camps. Purges of recalcitrant towns, villages, and/or geographic areas might be necessary. You might even want to consider resettling entire ethnic groups to stifle revolt. Be creative.
Squash the press
Nothing ruins your “benevolent leader” vibe like a free press hounding you constantly about freedom, human rights, abuses, corruption, and all the other issues you will need to suppress in order to show your people that you are good for them. Frankly, the press is a hard beast to tame, so this will take a lot of effort. You will need to intimidate, bully, demean, imprison, beat, and possibly even kill some journalists, until they all either fall in line, or find a new job. Do not be squeamish here. You need to be as rough with these jackals as you are with your potential political rivals. They will shatter the fiction you have worked so hard to create that all is hunky dory in the country.
Stack the government with your acolytes
Let’s face it: governing can be hard. It takes time, effort, some knowledge, and functionaries to make things work. However, you cannot have independent-minded bureaucrats mucking things up. These automatons will not always be on your page, doing what is best for the preservation of your power. To coax them along can be a full-time job. For this reason, you need some reliable help. You need an inner circle of advisers and principals who will put your commands into action, insure loyalty to your cult, and, if so required, serve as human sacrifices to your cause. You can always rotate out the members of this inner circle, and eliminate possible rivals if necessary. Have no worries, there.
Arrange election results
Sadly, you might at times be forced to face an “election,” as distasteful as that might sound. Winning one can bestow some legitimacy, however, if yours has started to wane. In such cases, be very careful to stack the odds such that it is inconceivable that you could lose. Ban foreign election monitors. Man the polling places so that your people can stuff ballot boxes. Most importantly, do not let your vote count come in below 99 percent of the total votes cast. You must win decisively and to do so, you must control the process. Do not be lazy. Details matter.
When all else fails, invade!
Finally, nothing brings the country together like a war. If you feel your grip slipping, or you simply want to shore up your support before an important election, consider launching an unprovoked war against a (preferably) weak neighbor. This will demonstrate your strength, and cause the people to rally around you. Show them what you are capable of. Exhibit your martial prowess! Just do not overdo it, and force the hand of a more powerful state to move against you. That could cause unnecessary problems. Be judicious in your choice of wars.
And that is all there is to it. It really is simple to hold onto your power, once you have secured it. You just need a little perseverance, ruthlessness, some elbow grease, and a willingness to do what it takes to make sure that you rule for life.
Good luck out there.