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 population as a whole, standing in contrast to the decidedly malevolent stereotype of a dictator who focuses on his and his supporters' self-interests. A benevolent dictator may allow for some civil liberties or democratic decision-making to exist, such as through public referenda or elected representatives with limited power, and often makes preparations for a transition to genuine democracy during or after their term. It might be seen as a republican form of enlightened despotism. The label has been applied to leaders such as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey (1923–1938),[1] Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia (1953–1980),[2] Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore (1959–1990),[3] Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq (1958-1963) and France-Albert René of Seychelles (1977–2004).[4]


The idea of benevolent dictatorship has a long history, dating back to various positively perceived[who?] rulers during ancient times,[when?] where authoritarian leadership was the norm.[citation needed] 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:[5]

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.[6]

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".[7]

Modern examples[edit]

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk[edit]

Atatürk during his time as president of Turkey

During his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923 and his presidency from 1923 to 1938, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is 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.[8] He presided over a series of reforms such as allowing women to vote, agrarian land reform, removal of Islam as the state religion and the establishment of secularism, modernization of the language and education, and the adoption of a Western-based law instead of sharia.[9]

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,[10][11][12][13] he was widely popular and was "seen by most as a benevolent dictator".[2] He was a popular public figure both in Yugoslavia and abroad.[14] Viewed as a unifying symbol,[15] 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.[16] Tito gained further international attention as the chief leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.[17]

This perception has changed significantly in anti-communist circles following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the examination of various war crimes committed by the Yugoslav Partisans in the aftermath of World War II and the League of Communists of Yugoslavia during its rule, namely the Bleiburg repatriations, the Foibe massacres, Tezno massacre, Macelj massacre, Kočevski Rog massacre, Barbara Pit massacre and the communist purges in Serbia in 1944–45. However, Tito's legacy as the leader of the movement which liberated Yugoslavia from Nazi German and Fascist Italian occupation is still officially respected in all former Yugoslav countries.

Although maintaining nominal leadership over the Party, State and Army, Tito skillfully used his personal authority and popularity to decentralize and "liberalize" Yugoslavia through the careful process of "Federating the federation", as defined by his close advisor and collaborator Vladimir Bakarić.

From the early 1960s he supported a series of reforms, such as the adoption of a new Constitution in 1963, a large-scale Economic Reform program in 1965, further amendments to the Constitution in 1966, 1968, 1971 and finally the adoption of a new Constitution in 1974, which was hailed as the beginning of a truly self-managing, democratic society.

The 1971 Constitutional Amendments introduced a rotating Presidency consisting of eight members, one from each Republic and Province, instead of the classic centralized-style office of President which was in place before decentralization.

The 1974 Constitution guaranteed de jure "...the right to self-determination, including secession..." to every Republic, reducing the power of the central, federal government over the individual governments of each republic, making Yugoslavia a true confederation.

Fidel Castro[edit]

Adopting a Marxist–Leninist model of development, Fidel Castro was the longest-serving non-royal head of state in the 20th century. A polarizing figure, Castro was seen as a champion of socialism and anti-imperialism by supporters and a tyrannical dictator whose administration oversaw severe shortages during the "Special Period", widespread abuse of human rights in Cuba and suppressing freedom of the press by detractors. Castro's regime significantly expanded healthcare and education, reducing infant mortality rates and increasing literacy dramatically.[18] Castro built new roads, and improved infrastructure generally, spending millions on water and sanitation projects.[18] Homelessness was reduced nationwide, with public housing schemes. The regime built nurseries and day-care centers and provided age care and disability services.[18] Gender inequality was reduced significantly under Castro, who implemented policies that criminalized discrimination, raising the education, health care and financial standards for women to near parity with men.[19] Ending racial discrimination was prioritized by Castro who forwarded an agenda of egalitarianism, removing racial restrictions on access to schooling and reducing inequity in property ownership and employment opportunities for people of color.[20]

Lee Kuan Yew[edit]

Lee Kuan Yew in 1965

Since its independence in 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 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. Lee is therefore often called a 'benevolent dictator.'[21] As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990,[22] he implemented some laws that were deemed to be autocratic, and attempted to dismantle political opposition. 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".[23] Ever since Lee's resignation as Prime Minister in 1990 and his death in 2015, Singapore has undergone democratization with improved rule of law.[24] Despite this, the government of Singapore is still being criticized by other political parties for not allowing complete and unrestricted freedom of speech.

France-Albert René[edit]

Although France-Albert René seized power in a coup, his one-party socialist rule in Seychelles rapidly developed the country since its independence. His administration established various administrative, public and educational institutions, created a universal health care system, and brought the national literacy rate to 90%.[25]

Gamal Abdel Nasser[edit]

Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist, socialist, anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, seized de facto power over Egypt in a military coup in 1952 as Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior, later being officially sworn in as President in 1956. Nasser's policies included the nationalisation of finance, heavy industry and shipping, a far-reaching land reform program which saw land ownership limited to 100 feddans, instituted a minimum wage for farmers and established agricultural cooperatives, pursuit of Arab unity, secularism, close cooperation with the Soviet Union, opposition to Israel and the United States, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal as well as large scale infrastructure projects and industrialisation, such as the Aswan Dam and the Helwan steelworks. Under Nasser, Egyptians enjoyed unprecedented access to housing, education, jobs, health services and nourishment as well as other forms of social welfare, while aristocratic influence waned.[26][27] Nasser's socialist policies, known as Nasserism, proved successful, with economic growth of around 9% for a decade.[28] Egypt industrialised rapidly as a consequence of Nasser's policies.[29]

Politically, Nasser set up a one-party state, under the direction of the Arab Socialist Union and he nationalised the press. He did however institute a law which guaranteed at least 50% of seats in Egypt's parliament, the People's Assembly, to workers and peasants. He also prepared for political democratisation, but the latter plans were derailed by his death in 1970.

By the time of his death, Nasser was immensely popular and widely viewed as the leader of the Arab world. Nasser's popularity was exemplified in the fact that when he announced his resignation in the wake of Egypt's defeat in the Six Day War, this announcement was met with widespread protests which demanded that Nasser remain President, a demand which Nasser accepted.[30]

Hugo Chávez[edit]

Hugo Chávez, an anti-imperialist and Marxist-Leninist, was elected as the president of Venezuela in 1998 and was officially sworn in as president in February 1999. Chávez was responsible for creating a constituent assembly that drafted the present-day Constitution of Venezuela in mid-1999, and focused on enacting social reforms as part of the Bolivarian Revolution. Some of the social reforms that Chávez enacted were part of the Bolivarian missions, including expanded access to food, healthcare, education, and housing.[31][32][33][34][35][36] Through cumulated oil revenue amounting to over one trillion US dollars Chávez was able to temporarily reduce illiteracy, poverty and unemployment.[37] However, the Bolivarian missions programs themselves were wound back after the collapse of venezualas oil market, which in turn lead to the major crisis in Venezuela beginnning in 2010.[38] By the time of his death in March 2013, Chavez had quadrupled Venezuela's external debt, and this effectively reversed any gains that were made by the Bolivarian missions.[39][40][41][42]

Paul Kagame[edit]

Once commander of rebel force during Rwandan civil war, Paul Kagame was sworn in as the president of Rwanda in 2000. Despite the accusation of political repression, he is considered very successful in transforming Rwanda.[43][44] Kagame launched a national development programme called Vision 2020, Its main objective is transforming the country into a knowledge-based middle-income country, thereby reducing poverty, health problems and making the nation united and democratic. Under his rule Rwanda became one of the cleanest countries in Africa, his rule also oversaw economic growth and a significant reduction of poverty.[45] Under his rule, Rwanda is also called the "Singapore of Africa" due to his effort modernizing post-war Rwanda which he also dubbed as "African Lee Kuan Yew".[46]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ a b 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."
  3. ^ Miller, Matt (2012-05-02). "What Singapore can teach us". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2016-03-11. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
  4. ^ Talel, Abraham. "Why Uhuru should be a 'benevolent' dictator to protect his legacy". The Standard. Retrieved 2020-05-26.
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  6. ^ Ribeiro, Igor (February 25, 2009). "A "ditabranda" da Folha" (in Portuguese). Portal Imprensa. Archived from the original on 2012-02-01.
  7. ^ Olson, Mancur (1993-01-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
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  11. ^ Andjelic, Neven (2003). Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. Frank Cass. p. 36. ISBN 0-7146-5485-X.
  12. ^ Tierney, Stephen (2000). Accommodating National Identity: New Approaches in International and Domestic Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 90-411-1400-9.
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  14. ^ 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."
  15. ^ 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."
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  17. ^ Peter Willetts, The non-aligned movement: the origins of a Third World alliance (1978) p. xiv
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  19. ^ Lamrani, Salim; Oberg, Larry (2016). "Women in Cuba: The Emancipatory Revolution". International Journal of Cuban Studies. 8 (1): 109–116. doi:10.13169 Check |doi= value (help). Retrieved 28 November 2020.
  20. ^ Belkhir,, Jean Ait; Binns, Leroy A. (2013). "Cuba: Race Matters". Race, Gender & Class Journal. 20 (3): 333–345. Retrieved 28 November 2020.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  21. ^ BOO SU-LYN. "Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator". Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Democracy Index
  25. ^ Shillington, Kevin (2014). Albert René, the Father of Modern Seychelles: A Biography. Crowley, Western Australia: The University of Western Australia. ISBN 9781742586120.
  26. ^ Cook 2011, p. 111
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  28. ^ Egypt on the Brink by Tarek Osman, Yale University Press, 2010, p.48
  29. ^ Aburish 2004, pp. 138–139
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  33. ^ Montilla K., Andrea (23 April 2014). "Hoy se inicia consulta nacional para el currículo educativo". El Nacional. Archived from the original on 24 April 2014. Retrieved 24 April 2014.
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