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If we take a look at country designations, with depressing regularity the most repressive ones call themselves e.g.:

  • Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea)
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • German Democratic Republic
  • Democratic Kampuchea

If you look at the Human Development Index the last entries always begin officially with "Republic of". There are also exceptions: "Republic of Botswana" or "Federal Republic of Germany" have a good record while there are also autocratic kingdoms like Saudi Arabia in contrast to parliamentary ones (United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark).

Is this a relatively new phenomenon in the wake of ideologies which promised to build a better system after the demise of feudalism and the outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution, or are there precedents? In history we often do not learn the full designation of countries or state-like entities.

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    Imperial Rome called itself a republic, and the emperor First Citizen. – Semaphore Sep 7 '15 at 3:57
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    I don't know about the history of ancient Greece, but that is from where the word originates. So my guess is that the strict date, in answer to your question, will be suffixed BC. But in modern history the word carried negative connotations prior to the 20th century - especially in the southern United States. Did Lincoln use the word democracy? He certainly spoke of government of the people, for the people, and by the people - but I'm not sure democracy was enough in vogue for him to have used it. At a guess I'd say you wouldn't have seen it used much anywhere before WW2. – WS2 Sep 7 '15 at 18:20
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    In my observation "Republic" is not a red flag in a country name. The red flags are "People's" or "Democratic". I do not believe either of these were ever on a free society. – Loren Pechtel Sep 8 '15 at 3:00
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    @LorenPechtel Actually, the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe is a multiparty representative democracy. – Semaphore Sep 8 '15 at 6:01
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It started at least with the rule of Gaius Octavius, a.k.a. Augustus. He was a dictator (Imperator) but Rome was continued to be called republic, consuls and Senate continued to be "elected". But the supreme power became lifetime, and the Imperator appointed a heir, usually a real or adopted son.

Since then, this is a custom in some dictatorships.

The term "People's democracy" was invented by Stalin (Soviet dictator, who claimed that he rules a democratic, constitutional state). The first "People's Democracies" were Eastern European states, PRC and North Korea. Then some countries in Africa and Asia followed the example.

Usually such countries have all attributes of democracy: a constitution and parliaments, even an "elected president". But really this is a rule of one person, who is secretly elected by a small band, called Politburo of the Communist party, usually for life time, unless the same Politburo stages a coup. The only difference is that in some of these countries this power is hereditary and in others it is not.

Correction. As Bartek Chom noticed correctly in his comment to another answer, the term was not invented by Stalin, but it was also used by the short lived Ukrainian and Belorussian People's republics. However these states were not communist dictatorships.

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    Be careful with your titles. Dictator was a specific Roman title. Julius Caesar was a Dictator, Augustus was not. Not all Imperators were emperors. – Neil Kirk Sep 7 '15 at 18:59
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    In my answer I used the word "Dictator" in the modern sense, not in the ancient Roman sense. I am aware of the difference. In practice, August and his descendants were absolute, lifetime rulers, and they decided who the next ruler will be. – Alex Sep 8 '15 at 3:27
  • Interestingly I think there is a reason that the switch from a republic to an effective monarchy (and therefore hereditary dictatorship) is not so perceived as historic incident. It is the peace, security, prosperity and tranquility of the resulting epoch, the Pax Romana. (Yes, there were still border wars, but they did not disturb the inner provinces of the Roman Empire). It is an unusual strong contrast to the usual violence and atrocities, suppression of inner resistance, cleptocracy and favoritism usually associated by an installment of a dictatorship. – Thorsten S. Sep 8 '15 at 9:33
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    @Thorsten S: Yes, surprisingly, the system established by Augustus turned out to be very effective. It ended civil wars for a long period. – Alex Sep 8 '15 at 11:27
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The names People's Republic (more common), Democratic Republic or Democratic People's Republic come from Marxist-Leninist ideology. The idea is that socialist states (they never claimed to have fully realized communism) serve the interest of the vast majority of the people, whereas traditional or bourgeois democracies are not really democratic and only serve the elite. That would readily account for North Korea, Cambodia and the GDR but that's probably, in a loose way, the source of the name Democratic Republic of the Congo as well.

The country came to be known under that name for the first time under Mobutu. Although he was mostly aligned with the US and the West and had a difficult relationship with both China and the Soviet Union, he established a style of government highly reminiscent of some People's Republics (one-party rule, cult of personality, pioneer organization and propaganda). Later on, he embarked on a campaign to reestablish African authenticity and had the country renamed Zaïre (the whole project is called “zaïrianisation”) and abandoned the name “Democratic Republic”.

After he was forced to flee, in 1997, his successors, while not particularly democratically-minded got rid of all that and reverted to a more classical style of cronyism and authoritarianism. But renaming the country République du Congo would once again create an homonymy with the neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville so it was renamed République Démocratique du Congo, I assume without any particular political or ideological undertone. Nobody would call the country anything else than simply “Congo” without that homonymy.

Incidentally, “GDR”, “DDR” (in German) and similar acronyms in other languages similarly became very widely used because you could not simply call either part of the country “Germany” when it was divided.

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    This does not say how this trend started – Bregalad Sep 7 '15 at 13:44
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    @Bregalad Not sure I understand what you mean nor whether I agree there is a single “trend” to speak of. If you are a looking for a general explanation, then Marxist-leninist ideology would seem to be a good one. The minutiae of the when and how it happened in a given country could also be interesting but that's going to be very limited in scope and even further from explaining the global use of these names. – Relaxed Sep 7 '15 at 13:48
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The term people's republic was coined by the loyalist side in the Spanish civil war. It was intended to suggest a republic which would guarantee the welfare of all its citizens; their economic rights as well as political.

It was adopted by the east European countries, as a supposed third way between bourgeois democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Of course now we know that all the coalitions were just a stepping stone to communist takeover. Presumably the non-communists who used the term, like Eduard Benes of Czechoslovakia, were sincere when they used it.

Edit: a user pointed out that Ukraine and Belarus called themselves people's republics during their brief independence from ~1917 to ~1922. In the same period, several countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia and Hungary called themselves democratic repulbic. All of these countries were more or less genuine democracies, as much as the war and general chaos would allow, but none of them survived.

So to answer your question, before ww2 if a country called itself democratic, it probably was. After ww2, it probably wasn't.

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    Ukrainian People's Republic and Belarusian People's Republic from 1918 or even 1917 were a bit older than the Spanish civil war. – BartekChom Sep 7 '15 at 12:20
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    Good point I will update. – Ne Mo Sep 7 '15 at 15:08

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