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Benevolent dictatorship

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A benevolent dictatorship is a government in which an authoritarian leader exercises absolute political power over the state, but is perceived to do so with regard for the benefit of the population as a whole. It stands in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator, who focuses on his or her supporters and his or her own self-interests. A benevolent dictator may allow for some civil liberties or democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referendums or elected representatives with limited power, and can make preparations for a transition to genuine democracy during or after his or her term.[1][need quotation to verify]


Economist William Easterly defines benevolent autocrats as "leaders in non-democratic polities who receive credit for high growth." He notes that it is a popular and politically convenient story but goes on to argue that the concept is not supported by theory or evidence.[2]

Modern usage of the term in a world society where the norm leans much more toward democracy can be traced back to John Stuart Mill in his classic On Liberty (1869). Although he argued in favor of democratic rights for individuals, he did make an exception for what he called today's developing countries. He wrote: "We may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. Despotism is ... legitimate ... in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement ... . Liberty ... has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion."[3]

Benevolent dictator was a popular rhetoric in the early 20th century as a support for colonial rulings. A British colonial official called Lord Hailey said in the 1940s: "A new conception of our relationship...may emerge as part of the movement for the betterment of the backward peoples of the world". Hailey conceived economic development as a justification for colonial power.

In the Spanish language, the pun word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship conserving some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is "dictatorship", dura is "hard" and blanda is "soft". Analogously, the same pun is made in Portuguese as ditabranda or ditamole. In February 2009, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo ran an editorial classifying the military dictatorship in Brazil (1964–1985) as a "ditabranda", creating controversy.[4]

Mancur Olson characterized dictators as "not like the wolf that preys on the elk, but more like the rancher who makes sure his cattle are protected and are given water", arguing that they have an incentive to provide public goods at the same time they extract the largest possible surplus for themselves.[5]

Historical example[edit]

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus[edit]

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was an opponent of the rights of the plebeians (the common citizens) who fell into poverty because of his son Caeso Quinctius's violent opposition to their desire for a written code of equally enforced laws. He worked his own small farm until he was called upon to provide leadership during an invasion by the Aequi, Rome's neighbors to the East. An initial Aequi victory caused panic in Rome, whereupon the Senate voted to appoint Cincinnatus as dictator for six months. A group of senators was sent to Cincinnatus' farm to inform him of his new role, finding him while he was ploughing his farm. On learning of the military reverse, Cincinnatus put on his senatorial toga and went to Rome, where he organized a relief force. Sixteen days later,[6] Cincinnatus's army defeated the Aequi and ended the war. Cincinnatus then gave up his dictatorial powers and returned to his farm. His success and immediate resignation of his near-absolute authority with the end of this crisis (traditionally dated to 458 BC) has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, humility, and modesty.

Modern examples[edit]

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk[edit]

The Policy Wire sees Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a benevolent dictator due to his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923 and his presidency from 1923 to 1938.[7] He was credited with removing foreign influence from former Ottoman territory, and is looked fondly upon as the founder of modern Turkey in the form of a republic.[7][8]

As the president of the newly formed Turkish Republic, Atatürk initiated a rigorous program of political, economic, and cultural reforms with the ultimate aim of building a modern and progressive nation. He made Turkey into a secular state. Secularism in Turkey derives from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Six Arrows: republicanism, populism, laicity, reformism, nationalism, and statism. He made primary education free and compulsory, opening thousands of new schools all over the country. Turkish women received equal civil and political rights during Atatürk's presidency. In particular, women were given voting rights in local elections by Act no. 1580 on 3 April 1930 and a few years later, in 1934, full universal suffrage. Alexander Rüstow also defined his rule as a benevolent dictatorship.[9][10]

Josip Broz Tito[edit]

Although Josip Broz Tito led the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as Prime Minister and President (later President for Life) from 1953 until his death in 1980 under what many criticized as authoritarian rule,[11][12][13][14] according to author Susan G. Shapiro, he was widely popular and was seen by most as a benevolent dictator.[15] He was a popular public figure both in Yugoslavia and abroad.[16]

Viewed as a unifying symbol especially retrospectively after the events of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia,[17] his internal policies maintained the peaceful coexistence of the nations of the Yugoslav federation. The country's economy underwent a period of prosperity under the system of workers' self-management devised by his deputy Edvard Kardelj.[18] Tito gained further international attention as the chief leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.[19]

Lee Kuan Yew[edit]

Since gaining independence on 9 August 1965, Singapore in just a few decades transformed from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into Asia's most developed nation and one of the wealthiest, as a center of aviation, international banking, business, tourism and shipping. Singapore has thus been dubbed as one of the Four Asian Tigers. Lee Kuan Yew and his administration wielded absolute reign over Singaporean politics until 1990, while his People's Action Party has remained in power ever since, controlling Singapore as a dominant-party state. Therefore, Lee has been referred to as a benevolent dictator.[20]

As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990,[21] he implemented some laws that were deemed by some observers to be autocratic, and attempted to dismantle political opposition by engaging in defamation lawsuits. Despite this, he is reportedly often looked upon favorably by Singaporeans for his transformation of Singapore. Peter Popham of The Independent called Lee "one of the most successful political pragmatists".[22]

Ever since Lee's retirement as prime minister in 1990 and his death in 2015, Singapore has undergone more democratisation with increased political participation by other parties, most notably the Workers' Party, as well as the office of the Leader of the Opposition being created. Despite this, the Government of Singapore continues to be criticised for not implementing freedom of speech like their Western counterparts.[23]

France-Albert René[edit]

France-Albert René has been characterized[24] as a prime example of a benevolent dictatorship, nearly eliminating poverty from the Seychelles. René created a universal health system, increased the literacy rate to 90%, and led his country to the point of being the most developed country in Africa – as measured by the Human Development Index – helping build one of the continent's highest gross domestic products per capita. His supporters believe that he had solid social priorities, including his government's extensive funding of education, health care and the environment. Critical indicators, such as infant mortality, literacy rate, and economic well-being, are among the best in the continent. During his rule, the Seychelles avoided the volatile political climate and underdevelopment in neighboring island countries such as the Comoros and Madagascar.[citation needed]

However, the Truth Reconciliation and National Unity Commission (TRNUC[25]) in 2018 heard testimony from people who had been tortured, and from relatives of people who had been murdered, tortured, disappeared, assassinated, detained without trial, as well as evidence of financial crimes and looting of the state and private individuals.

Thomas Sankara[edit]

Thomas Sankara was the first president of Burkina Faso ('Land of Incorruptible People'), renamed from "Republic of Upper Volta" by Sankara himself.[26] Often referred to as Africa's Che Guevara for the socialist politics that followed the coup d'état that led him to the presidency of Burkina Faso, Sankara focused on improving the health and general well-being of the people. He started a vaccination campaign trying to eradicate polio, meningitis and measles, and during his presidency two million Burkinabé were vaccinated.[27] The infant mortality rate also decreased greatly, thanks to the improved health care system. Contraception and STI prevention was also promoted, as the AIDS epidemic was publicly recognized by his government as a major threat. He also launched education programs with the aim of reducing illiteracy. Women's rights were also recognized and female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy were banned. The importance of women was also represented inside institutions, and some high governmental positions were, in fact, covered by women. Sankara also had an uncommon environmental awareness and tried to fight desertification by planting over 10 million trees. Several criticisms however were moved towards the conduct of Popular Revolutionary Tribunals against political opponents and people related to the previous regime. Widespread violence and summary trials were reported by different sources.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Roth, Steffen J. (2007). VWL für Einsteiger: eine anwendungsorientierte Einführung (2. Ausgabe) [Economics for beginners: an application-oriented introduction (2nd Edition)] (in German). Lucius & Lucius UTB GmbH. pp. 133–134. ISBN 9783825227425 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ "Benevolent Autocrats" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-04-02. Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  3. ^ "Benevolent Autocrats" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-04-02. Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  4. ^ Ribeiro, Igor (February 25, 2009). "A "ditabranda" da Folha" [The "ditabranda" of Folha] (in Portuguese). Portal Imprensa. Archived from the original on 2012-02-01.
  5. ^ Olson, Mancur (1993-01-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736. S2CID 145312307.
  6. ^ Hillyard, Michael J. (2001). Cincinnatus and the Citizen-Servant Ideal: The Roman Legend's Life, Times, and Legacy. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4628-0465-8 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ a b Watson, Eric (March 27, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew & The Curious Legacies of "Benevolent Dictators"". The Policy Wire. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-11-27.
  8. ^ Stirling, Paul (March 1953). "Social Ranking in a Turkish Village". The British Journal of Sociology. 4 (1): 31–44. doi:10.2307/587165. JSTOR 587165.
  9. ^ Saylam, İbrahim; Çelikoğlu, İlkim (16 July 2020). "The Significance of the Kemalist Modernization For Modernization Theory". Uludağ University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Journal of Social Sciences. 22 (40): 663–703. doi:10.21550/sosbilder.719120.
  10. ^ Rustow, D. A. (1956a). Politics and Westernization in the Near East. R. Nolle (Ed.), The Modern Middle East, Atherton Press.
  11. ^ Cohen, Bertram D.; Ettin, Mark F.; Fidler, Jay W. (2002). Group Psychotherapy and Political Reality: A Two-Way Mirror. International Universities Press. p. 193. ISBN 0-8236-2228-2.
  12. ^ Andjelic, Neven (2003). Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. Frank Cass. p. 36. ISBN 0-7146-5485-X.
  13. ^ Tierney, Stephen (2000). Accommodating National Identity: New Approaches in International and Domestic Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 90-411-1400-9.
  14. ^ Naming Street After Tito Unconstitutional. Slovenia Times, 5 October 2011 http://www.sloveniatimes.com/naming-street-after-tito-unconstitutional Archived 2017-01-31 at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Shapiro, Susan; Shapiro, Ronald (2004). The Curtain Rises: Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. McFarland. ISBN 0-7864-1672-6.
    "...All Yugoslavs had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality. Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism".
  16. ^ Bokovoy, Melissa Katherine; Irvine, Jill A.; Lilly, Carol S. (1997). State-society relations in Yugoslavia, 1945–1992. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 36. ISBN 0-312-12690-5. ...Of course, Tito was a popular figure, both in Yugoslavia and outside it.
  17. ^ Cottam, Martha L.; Dietz-Uhler, Beth; Mastors, Elena; Preston, Thomas (2009). Introduction to political psychology. Psychology Press. p. 243. ISBN 978-1-84872-881-3. ...Tito himself became a unifying symbol. He was charismatic and very popular among the citizens of Yugoslavia.
  18. ^ "Yugoslavia: Introduction of Socialist Self-Management". Country Data. December 1990. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  19. ^ Willetts, Peter (1978). The non-aligned movement: the origins of a Third World alliance. p. xiv.
  20. ^ BOO SU-LYN. "Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator". Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  21. ^ Carlton Tan (March 23, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew leaves a legacy of authoritarian pragmatism". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2018-02-27. Retrieved 2016-12-17.
  22. ^ Popham, Peter (March 23, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew: An entirely exceptional leader who balanced authoritarianism with pragmatism". The Independent. Archived from the original on 2017-08-31. Retrieved 2017-08-24.
  23. ^ "Singapore: Free Expression Targeted". Human Rights Watch. 17 January 2019.
  24. ^ Talel, Abraham (February 15, 2018). "Why Uhuru should be a 'benevolent' dictator to protect his legacy". Standard Digital.
  25. ^ "Truth Reconciliation and National Unity Commission". Archived from the original on 2022-09-26. Retrieved 2022-07-30.
  26. ^ "What Do the Colors and Symbols of the Flag of Burkina Faso Mean?". WorldAtlas.com. 2019-05-17. Archived from the original on 2019-05-17. Retrieved 2023-04-23.
  27. ^ "Vaccination commando: Burkina Faso". Salubritas. 8 (4): 1. 1985. ISSN 0191-5789. PMID 12340574.