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 benefit of the nation and its population as a whole, standing in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator who focuses on their supporters and their own self-interests.

As such, a benevolent dictator generally allows for some civil liberties and democratic decision-making as well as the rule of law to exist, such as through public referendums or elected representatives with varying degrees of power, and often makes preparations for increased democratization during or after their term. It might be seen as a republican form of enlightened despotism.


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:[1]

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.

Benevolent dictator was also 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.[2]

Mancur Olson characterized benevolent 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".[3]

Modern examples[edit]

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the 1930s
Lee Kuan Yew in 1965

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk[edit]

Shortly after the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the online portal The Policy Wire in its editorial brought up Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a similar benevolent dictator due to his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923 and his presidency from 1923 to 1938.[4] 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.[4][5]

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 Republic of Turkey a secular state. Secularism in Turkey derives from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's Six Arrows: republicanism, populism, laïcité, 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.[6][7]

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 1944 until his death in 1980 under what many criticized as authoritarian rule,[8][9][10][11] according to author Susan G. Shapiro he was widely popular and was "seen by most as a benevolent dictator".[12] He was a popular public figure both in Yugoslavia and abroad.[13]

Viewed as a unifying symbol especially retrospectively after the events of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia,[14] 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.[15] Tito gained further international attention as the chief leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.[16]

Lee Kuan Yew[edit]

Since gaining independence on 9 August 1965, Singapore in just a few decades has transformed from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into Asia's most developed nation and one of the wealthiest, as a centre of aviation, international banking, business, tourism and shipping.[17] Singapore was also 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 often been referred to as a benevolent dictator.[18] In 1988, Donella Meadows of the The Academy for Systems Change described Singaporeans to be living a good life under a benevolent dictator – referring to Lee.[19]

As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990,[20] 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. A proponent for Realpolitik, Peter Popham of The Independent called Lee "one of the most successful political pragmatists."[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Benevolent Autocrats" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-04-02. Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  2. ^ Ribeiro, Igor (February 25, 2009). "A "ditabranda" da Folha" (in Portuguese). Portal Imprensa. Archived from the original on 2012-02-01.
  3. ^ Olson, Mancur (1993-01-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
  4. ^ a b Eric Watson (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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Saylam, İbrahim; Çelikoğlu, İlkim (16 July 2020). "The Significance of the Kemalist Modernization For Modernization Theory": 681. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Rustow, D. A. (1956a). Politics and westernization in the Near East. R. Nolle (Ed.), The Modern Middle East, Atherton Press.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Andjelic, Neven (2003). Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. Frank Cass. p. 36. ISBN 0-7146-5485-X.
  10. ^ Tierney, Stephen (2000). Accommodating National Identity: New Approaches in International and Domestic Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 90-411-1400-9.
  11. ^ Naming Street After Tito Unconstitutional. Slovenia Times, 5 October 2011 Archived 2017-01-31 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ Melissa Katherine Bokovoy, Jill A. Irvine, Carol S. Lilly, State-society relations in Yugoslavia, 1945–1992; Palgrave Macmillan, 1997 p. 36 ISBN 0-312-12690-5
    "...Of course, Tito was a popular figure, both in Yugoslavia and outside it."
  14. ^ Martha L. Cottam, Beth Dietz-Uhler, Elena Mastors, Thomas Preston, Introduction to political psychology, Psychology Press, 2009 p. 243 ISBN 1-84872-881-6
    "...Tito himself became a unifying symbol. He was charismatic and very popular among the citizens of Yugoslavia."
  15. ^ "Yugoslavia: Introduction of Socialist Self-Management". Country Data. December 1990. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  16. ^ Peter Willetts, The non-aligned movement: the origins of a Third World alliance (1978) p. xiv
  17. ^ Zarroli, Jim (29 March 2015). "How Singapore Became One Of The Richest Places On Earth". National Public Radio. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  18. ^ BOO SU-LYN. "Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator". Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  19. ^ Meadows, Donella (5 May 1988). "Singapore Leads the Good Life Under a Benevolent Dictator". The Academy for Systems Change. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Peter Popham (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.