The term semi-authoritarian is used to refer to a state or regime that shares both democratic and authoritarian features. According to Marina Ottaway, such states are "ambiguous systems that combine rhetorical acceptance of liberal democracy, the existence of some formal democratic institutions, and political liberties with essentially illiberal or even authoritarian traits."

A young and unstable democracy struggling toward improvement and consolidation is usually not classified as a semi-authoritarian country. Rather, the term "semi-authoritarian" is reserved for stable regimes that combine democratic and authoritarian elements. Most of them are dominant-party systems - that is, states where opposition parties are allowed and free elections are held, but where the opposition has no real chance of winning. Sometimes the dominant party maintains power through election fraud, while other times the elections themselves are fair, but the electoral campaigns preceding them are not.

The late 1980s and early 1990s have seen the demise of many different kinds of authoritarian governments: communist states in Eastern Europe, right-wing military dictatorships in Latin America, and various others in Africa. Often, the governments that replaced them declared their allegiance to democracy and implemented genuine democratic reforms in the beginning, but eventually turned into semi-authoritarian regimes.

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