The Cardassian Union, also known at times as the Cardassian Empire or simply as Cardassia, was the main political entity of the Cardassian people. Its primary seat of power is Cardassia Prime. The Cardassian Union has a troubled five-hundred year history marked by privation, repression, and war. While not as insular as the Romulan Star Empire, until recent years, the Cardassian Union has been one of the most oppressive, all-controlling governments in the entire Alpha Quadrant.
The Cardassian Union was approximately five hundred years old at the time of the Dominion War, putting its founding sometime during Earth's nineteenth century. (DS9: "Defiant") When the resource-poor Cardassia Prime fell on hard times, it turned to militaristic ideals, replacing the society of the First Hebitians, a peaceful and devout people, followers of the Oralian Way. This was when the two main governing forces, Central Command and the Obsidian Order, and the diminishing third, the Detapa Council, were founded. (TNG: "Chain of Command"; A Stitch in Time)
How militaristic and repressive the Union was in its early days is unknown, due to references to a so-called First Republic, a government that ruled during the time of poet Iloja of Prim.
After that, the Union adopted an expansionist policy, spreading its sphere of influence in the Alpha Quadrant through a combination of alliance, colonization, and conquest--though it would be known most of all for the atrocities committed during its conquests, particularly the Occupation of Bajor. The brutality of the Union also extended to its treatment of its own people, subjecting them to harsh indoctrination, constant surveillance, and brutal "justice" by kangaroo court if they dared to step out of line.
The Occupation of Bajor, however, became Cardassia's tipping point--in many ways, a bridge too far. After depleting most of Bajor's resources, the Detapa Council flexed its muscle in an unusual display of strength and forced Cardassian forces to withdraw from the planet in 2369. (DS9: "Emissary")
This set into motion a chain of events that rocked the seemingly ironclad Union--political and religious dissidents grew emboldened. A brief coup engineered by military officials in support of the True Way occurred in 2369 in reaction to the Cardassian failure to locate the Bajoran Wormhole, though this was quickly overthrown. (Betrayal; Star Trek: Sigils and Unions--"A Stone's Throw Away"). Other dissidents, some inspired by Legate Tekeny Ghemor rose up following the destruction of most of the Obsidian Order in the disastrous Omarion Nebula campaign in the Gamma Quadrant and returned the Detapa Council to a much stronger position versus Central Command. (DS9: "The Way of the Warrior")
This did not last long, however. Klingon suspicions of Dominion involvement in the uprising--which were in fact goaded on by a Founder in the form of General Martok--led to a pre-emptive strike against the Union. (DS9: "The Way of the Warrior") In retaliation, Gul Dukat unilaterally negotiated Cardassia's alliance--in the end, absorption--into the Dominion. (DS9: "By Inferno's Light") Though he viewed this as his way of "protecting" his people, in reality the Dominion absorbed the Union and drew it into their war against the other Alpha Quadrant powers, all the more so following his mental breakdown and a procession of weaker and weaker leaders.
In 2375, however, the Cardassian people, under Legate Damar, rose up against Dominion rule, turning the course of the war and eventually leading to an Allied victory. This came at a heavy price, though: before the Founder was convinced to surrender, she ordered the genocide of the Cardassian people. Though she called off her forces upon surrender, the death toll across the Union was staggering. (DS9: "What You Leave Behind")
The Cardassian Union was most likely Occupied by the allied powers for some time after the war.
The Cardassian Union was governed for most of its history by the tense joint rule of the military--Central Command--and the Obsidian Order, its intelligence apparatus. On paper, the civilian Detapa Council was supposed to oversee the actions of the military and intelligence agencies, but they grew so powerful that the Detapa Council instead lived in fear of them and did nothing but give its rubber stamp to their actions after the fact. The Cardassian government became so omnipresent and so sure of itself that it even developed the custom of subjecting its citizens to show trials in which the verdict was announced at the start, and the point was simply to extract a confession from the "guilty."
The Cardassian Union was founded in Earth year 1876 in the wake of a massive climatological disaster known as the Cataclysm by an individual known as Tret Akleen. It can be said that the rise of the Union began after Akleen killed an Oralian Guide, Yavenn Pretam: while this was largely a symbolic act, for the people it represented the overturning of the old order and emboldened other actions. Akleen's armies swept the planet, deposed the Castellan, and shattered the remnants of the Hebitian society and turned disfavor upon the Oralian Way--eventually bringing it to the brink of destruction. It was Akleen who founded Central Command and the Adopting the name "Cardassian" for themselves, they began their era of expansion. Formal first contact with the Federation did not occur until sometime in the 24th century due to a trade embargo established during the 23rd in protest of the repressive ways of the Cardassian government. (Star Trek: Sigils and Unions--"Point of Divergence", "Cardassian Sunrise")
- Tret Akleen originates from a line cut from the DS9 episode "Tears of the Prophets," and is thus in a sort of grey area, canonically speaking. However, Akleen has been included in Pocket Books' licensed novels, beginning with A Stitch in Time, and is also a part of the Star Trek: Sigils and Unions history.
Star Trek XI timeline
In the Narada-affected version of the Star Trek: Sigils and Unions timeline, rather than refusing contact with the Cardassian Union until such became inevitable, due to the events surrounding the destruction of the Kelvin no trade embargo was ever put into place, and an under-the-table diplomatic envoy was sent to Cardassia Prime. Included in the delegation was Ensign Christopher Pike. One year after the Vulcan Genocide, official ties began between the Federation and the Cardassian Union, with the intent of combating the simultaneous Klingon-Romulan threat. (Star Trek: Sigils and Unions--"Cardassian Sunrise")
In the Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius continuity, the sequence of events leading to the birth of the Cardassian Union was averted when the young Tret Akleen--who would become known in this timeline as Rhirzum Akleen--refused to murder Guide Yavenn Pretam. Instead, Pretam became a major political figure as Guide to the Castellan, with Akleen as a close friend. Cardassia continued as a democracy, with added rights such as the "Right of Worship," which guaranteed religious freedom, to include the practice of no religion, to all of Cardassian blood, or who lived legally in Cardassian territory. Cardassian history in this universe is not marked by conquest as it was in the prime universe--rather, by alliances and colonization of uninhabited worlds. Prior to the Bajoran invasion, the interstellar space controlled by Cardassia is officially known as the Cardassian Theonomy, though it is most commonly referred to by its inhabitants as the "worlds of Cardassia." (Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius--"Point of Divergence", "The Desolate Vigil")
- In the Sigils and Unions: Catacombs of Oralius timeline, based on evidence seen onscreen in TNG: "Parallels," the species name is still "Cardassian." While believers in the Oralian Way are still dominant, the name "Cardassian" was adopted as an alternative to "Hebitian," a term that due to its meaning could be seen as giving non-believers a sub-person status.