The French term democrature (from democratie + dictature) is defined as:

Dictature déguisée en démocratie par l’organisation d’élections non libres, contrôlées et/ou frauduleuses. Par extension, tout système visant à contrôler des élections, et y parvenant. That is: (Dictatorship disguised as a democracy by the organization of non-free, controlled and / or fraudulent elections. By extension, any system aiming to control elections, and succeeding in doing so.)

The Italian term democratura (democrazia + dittatura) with the same meaning, is present in main dictionaries.

In English the literal translation is democraship, a term about which the only reference I could find is from a blog of Dr. Adizes:

“Democraship,” is a term coined by Dr. Adizes that defines the conflict that exists between democratic and dictatorial systems.

whose definition appears to differ from the French or Italian one, plus I couldn’t find the term in any dictionary.

Is there an established English term for “democrature” with the sense given by the French definition?


8 Answers 8


The term Potemkin democracy has been used in English for governments that would be called democratures in French.

The English phrase Potemkin democracy means a system of government which is designed to look like a democracy to the outside observer, but which is really not one. It's not anywhere near as common as démocrature is in French. (See Ngrams.)

Etymologically, this comes from the phrase Potemkin village, which Merriam-Webster defines as:

an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition,

and is named after Grigory Potemkin, who supposedly built show villages along the routes that Catherine the Great was scheduled to travel on.

  • 3
    Would “Potemkin democracy” be generally understood or is it a niche expression?
    – Gio
    Apr 28, 2021 at 5:28
  • 7
    @Gio I never heard it before although I got the meaning immediately (on just reading the 1st line of the answer) because I already knew about Potemkin villages. I think most people would go "WTF is a Potemkin?"
    – Tonny
    Apr 28, 2021 at 10:11
  • 2
    I have heard it before, and I think that you'd generally be understood using it. It's not something everyone will understand for sure (and many who use it don't even know the origin), but I suspect that someone with whom you're having a discussion about facade governments probably has an understanding of the phrase. Apr 28, 2021 at 13:59
  • 2
    Your ngram search link, and your related assertion, is incorrect; the corpus for French is fre_2019 and the French word is "démocrature". Proper results
    – miken32
    Apr 28, 2021 at 18:05
  • 2
    Peter tell the truth - you made it up Apr 28, 2021 at 19:49

Naturally, nobody can prove the absence of a word from all dictionaries, if you mean that there has to be a word with the same ending as 'dictatorship' or 'legislature'.

But the answer is that there is no such word.

So the question is what word can be made up to do the same job as democratura in Italian and the cognate démocrature in French.

What is being talked about is a new (or seemingly new) idea: democratic forms retained to disguise what is really a dictatorship. Actually, it is not as new as you might think. But that is another story.

There is nothing wrong with using the equivalent English word, 'democrature'. Not least, many of the arguments about this modern phenomenon concern how it should be defined. So it would be a matter for political science and philosophy rather than for semantics and lexicography.

At the moment, if it is used, its first instance in a book or paper should be in 'scare quotes' to signal a neologism (or at least unfamiliar word), and carefully defined for the purpose of the paper itself, so that readers know what the author has in mind.

  • 6
    Etymologically, the ending of démocrature comes from the word dictature (meaning dictatorship) in French. I don't know what legislature has to do with this. Apr 26, 2021 at 18:24
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    @PeterShor Ohhh...so that's where the French word comes from. Following that pattern creates the ungainly English mouthful of 'democratatorship'?
    – Mitch
    Apr 27, 2021 at 2:20
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    Better just to adopt the French word - after all, about 30% of English words are loan words from French.
    – jamesqf
    Apr 27, 2021 at 4:15
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    @Mitch I didn't say I liked it, I do not know whether French or Italians care for the construct. I do think I prefer it to 'democraship'. What we have is kind of compromise that involves manipulation of a nominally democratic process and misuse of both police, army and state intelligence. The Romans called it 'principatus' or 'imperium'. It included manipulation of the democratic part of the Roman system by making one person People's Tribune for life with the power to propose laws to the people and to veto laws,AND to have immunity from attack and prosecution.
    – Tuffy
    Apr 27, 2021 at 7:30
  • @Elliot There is a small problem. The term 'representative democracy' has itself a special meaning and contrasts with 'direct democracy', the system under which the citizens ARE the government in the sense that they all laws and regulations and legal actions are voted in (or out) by the whole citizen body (or at least those that bothered to show up). Under the representative aspect of contemporary democracy, the citizens vote for politicians to take all the decisions for them. The 'non-representative' democracy is really a pseudo-democracy. [continued]
    – Tuffy
    Apr 27, 2021 at 15:17

The term illiberal democracy, first used in an article by Fareed Zakaria, comes quite close to capturing the meaning of democrature

a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an open society.

With regards to elections

Elections in an illiberal democracy are often manipulated or rigged, being used to legitimize and consolidate the incumbent rather than to choose the country's leaders and policies.

While an illiberal democracy is not necessarily a dictatorship, it does have many of the same characteristics.

The word illiberal is used here in the meaning of

limiting freedom of expression, thought, behaviour, etc.

which ties into the definition above, of a government holding apparently free and fair elections, but not really, since the populace does not have the necessary information to cast an informed vote.

  • This describes the policy of the government as "illiberal" - I can see no reason why a Potemkin democracy could not be liberal. "Democrature" indicates only that what you see is not what you get.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 26, 2021 at 16:29
  • 1
    @Greybeard A government holding elections that aren't free/fair seems to be a good example of "what you see is not what you get". Potemkin democracy seems to be a good descriptor, but I think illiberal democracy is a reasonable term as well.
    – cigien
    Apr 26, 2021 at 16:33
  • 1
    @Greybeard I'm not sure what you mean by "liberal". I think you're saying that a Potemkin democracy could be leftist or progressive, even while being autocratic? If I'm right, then my response is that "illiberal" uses the word in its "freedom" sense. An illiberal democracy lacks certain freedoms, even if its policies are leftist or progressive. Apr 27, 2021 at 13:16
  • @TimPederick I'm not sure what you mean by "liberal" I take it that you also do not know what "illiberal", as cigien uses it, means. And this is another problem with the answer.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 27, 2021 at 14:25
  • @Greybeard I know which, of the possible definitions, I think it means: "restricting freedoms". As opposed to "not following liberal politics", which was my guess as to what you meant—was I right or wrong? Apr 28, 2021 at 10:31

According to the Swedish Wikipedia article for demokratur the corresponding English term is democratorship (something that is lead by a democrator).

Interestingly, according to the Wikipedia articles in languages I understand (German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, French, Danish), the oldest usage of the word listed is a Swedish newspaper, 1938.

  • 2
    Interesting, but “democratorship” doesn’t appear to be present in any English dictionary, apart from Urban Dictionary urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=democratorship
    – Gio
    Apr 27, 2021 at 17:53
  • 1
    But actually there are a few usage examples available from Google Books google.com/…
    – Gio
    Apr 27, 2021 at 18:02
  • While I don't have it based on other sources, I have also used "democratorship" for Czech "demokratura" on several occasions. It's the literal translation, rolls easier off the tongue and does not allude to crashed demos.
    – krigl
    Apr 29, 2021 at 11:41

Cargo cult democracy

More and more nations are becoming what can be described as “cargo cult” democracies. This is a nation ruled by an authoritarian government, which has come to power via electoral processes.

Such authoritarian governments maintain the forms of democracy, while ignoring the underlying principles, and corrupting the institutions which are supposed to prevent abuse.

This isn't a particularly common thing you will hear but the general idea is that cargo cults are groups where the rituals are more theatre than anything else. In other words the democracy part is a façade covering up more sinister things.


  • 7
    A cargo cult wants the thing it's emulating -- the voting isn't a cynical facade, it;s a sincere attempt at democracy. The end result is the same, but the intent seems important here. Apr 27, 2021 at 16:42
  • It seems to me that the connotation of cargo cult is too heavily emphasizing an arms race, or even technology. This combination of phrases feels misplaced.
    – App-Devon
    Apr 28, 2021 at 1:03
  • @App-Devon The more general sense of "Cargo Cult" is understanding something so poorly that one emulates the most obvious actions and expects it to work. One might set up voting machines and have elections, but not know about the other 20 things needed for a fair vote and a working democracy. Apr 28, 2021 at 2:07
  • Although the formatting is convincing, this answer seems to be introducing a nonce usage as described in an opinion column. It is not authoritative, only interesting. -1 Apr 28, 2021 at 20:22

It's not a single word, but I would describe this as a hybrid regime.

Wikipedia describes it as

Hybrid regimes combine autocratic features with democratic ones and can simultaneously hold political repressions and regular elections.


I'm surprised no one has already mentioned the common English idiom banana republic.

Wikipedia says this term originally designated "a servile oligarchy that abets and supports, for kickbacks, the exploitation of large-scale plantation agriculture", however, I think the term in modern usage refers to any republic (or former republic) that is so dominated by corrupt money that its outward forms of democracy are just a facade on a self-serving ruling class. In the modern era, American fruit companies are not the major source of money in politics, but the same concept -- that major corporations dominate their national governments by strategic infusions of graft -- is alive and well.

  • 2
    I live in a "banana republic". We have no illusions about its being corrupt, but it is democratic. The statement "major corporations dominate their national governments by strategic infusions of graft" could also apply to many political processes in the USA, especially the PACs, the constant pressure on legislators to spend the better part of their day raising money, the unregulated donor system, etc. Apr 28, 2021 at 18:53
  • But the wikipedia page, which seems mostly correct, says nothing about pretending to be a democracy. They often have military rule. Put another way, if you said "country X is just a banana republic", no one would ever guess you meant it looks democratic but really isn't. Apr 28, 2021 at 19:22
  • I'm not sure I agree that the wikipedia page is "mostly correct". It seems to focus on the historical origin of the term and not on the modern usage. When we call a nation a "banana republic" we're making an accusation -- no government proudly claims the moniker -- so by default there must be some pretense of law and democracy.
    – workerjoe
    Apr 28, 2021 at 20:22
  • democracy <> republic
    – crizzis
    Apr 29, 2021 at 19:34
  • @crizzis That's a whole other discussion!
    – workerjoe
    Apr 29, 2021 at 20:29

Machine Politics (or, in Wikipedia "Political Machine")

This is a common enough term -- in old 1970's Chicago you could say "the machine" and it was understood you meant the system of fixing elections so the boss's choice always won. I found contemporary Stacey Abrams Is Building a New Kind of Political Machine in the Deep South. It describes a non-corrupt machine, which is why it's a new kind -- we know the usual kind of machine is anti-democratic.

But the phrase doesn't fit in terms of a dictatorship establishing a cover. "Machine" only makes sense when you start with a democracy. No one would say Stalin ran a machine -- he just made up the vote totals. A machine is a complex system of subverting an otherwise fair voting process.

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