Benevolent dictatorship

A benevolent dictatorship refers to 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 their and their supporters' self-interests. A benevolent dictator may allow for some economic liberalization 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 Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman,[1] Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey,[2] Muammar Gaddafi of Libya,[3] Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia,[4] Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore,[5] and France-Albert René of Seychelles.[6]


The idea of benevolent dictatorship has a long history, dating back to various positively perceived rulers during ancient times, where authoritarian leadership was the norm. 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:[7]

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.[8]

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".[9]

Modern examples

Josip Broz Tito

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".[4] 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 right-wing circles following the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the examination of various 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 1960's 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 "...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 federation.

Muammar Gaddafi

After the overthrow of the Idriss Government in 1969, he became the head of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. His reign lasted 42 years before his overthrow and death.[18] Despite being a repressive and authoritarian leader, many of his actions have had positive effects on the country and people.[18][19][3][20] Healthcare, education, and electricity were free for all people, newly-weds would earn 60,000 Libyan dinar (47244 USD) upon their marriage, housing was provided throughout the country, free of charge, and a river was constructed, connected to major cities throughout the desert country.[18][21] Under his rule, the literacy rate of Libya was raised from 10% to 90%.[3] The HDI of Libya was 0.801 in 1997,[22] which would be considered "High human development", making it the most developed nation in Africa, and nowadays comparable to nations in Eastern Europe and South America in terms of development.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

During his leadership of the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1922 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.[23] 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 criminal code.[24]

Lee Kuan Yew

Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has transformed from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of Asia's wealthiest nations, a center of international banking, business 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.'[25] As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990,[26] 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".[27]

France-Albert René

Although France-Albert René seized power in a coup, his one-party 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%.[28]

See also


  1. Dickinson, Elizabeth (2014-12-08). "A Test for Oman and Its Sultan". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  2. "Benevolent Dictator? Thinking About MK Atatürk". Turkey File. October 19, 2009. Archived from the original on 2015-10-09. Retrieved 2015-09-27.
  3. "The whitewashing of Muammar Gaddafi". December 1, 2017.
  4. 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."
  5. Miller, Matt (2012-05-02). "What Singapore can teach us". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 2016-03-11. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
  6. Talel, Abraham. "For his legacy, Uhuru should consider being ‘benevolent’ dictator". The Standard. Retrieved 2019-06-22.
  7. "Benevolent Autocrats" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2017-04-02. Retrieved 2017-04-15.
  8. Ribeiro, Igor (February 25, 2009). "A "ditabranda" da Folha" (in Portuguese). Portal Imprensa. Archived from the original on 2012-02-01.
  9. Olson, Mancur (1993-01-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
  10. 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.
  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.
  13. Naming Street After Tito Unconstitutional. Slovenia Times, 5 October 2011 Archived 2017-01-31 at the Wayback Machine
  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."
  16. "Yugoslavia: Introduction of Socialist Self-Management". Country Data. December 1990. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  17. Peter Willetts, The non-aligned movement: the origins of a Third World alliance (1978) p. xiv
  18. Asser, Martin (October 21, 2011). "The Muammar Gaddafi story" via
  19. "Special Report: Gaddafi's secret missionaries". March 29, 2012 via
  20. "Gaddafi was a benevolent dictator". RT International.
  21. "Libya then and now". News24. September 17, 2015.
  23. 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.
  24. "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk". Archived from the original on 2015-11-09. Retrieved 2015-11-27.
  25. BOO SU-LYN. "Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator". Malay Mail. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-12-01.
  26. 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.
  27. 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.
  28. Shillington, Kevin (2014). Albert René, the Father of Modern Seychelles: A Biography. Crowley, Western Australia: The University of Western Australia. ISBN 9781742586120.
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