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 non-benevolent stereotype of a dictator. 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 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey,[1] Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia,[2] Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore,[3] France-Albert René of Seychelles.


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:[4]

"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 {such} state of things."

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 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.[5]

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".[6] This analogy helps explain the seemingly contradictory motivations for benevolence. What seems altruistic on behalf of the dictator is actually acting in rational self interest. The provision of public goods allows for a Pareto improvement in society, from which the dictator can extract taxes to enrich himself or the state.

Modern examples

Josip Broz Tito

Although Josip Broz Tito led the former 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,[7][8][9][10] he was widely popular and was "seen by most as a benevolent dictator".[2]

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.[11] 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, and the adoption of a Western-based criminal code.[12]

Lee Kuan Yew

Known to be the man who transformed Singapore from a poor agrarian society into one of Asia's wealthiest nations, Lee Kuan Yew is often called a 'benevolent dictator.'[13] As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990,[14] he implemented some laws that were deemed to be autocratic, and attempted to dismantle political opposition. Despite this, he is often looked upon favorably for his transformation of Singapore, and is considered by many to be one of the most successful political pragmatists.[15]

France-Albert René

Although France-Albert René seized power in a coup, his one-party rule in Seychelles nearly eliminated poverty, created a universal health care system, and brought the national literacy rate to 90%. He is also credited with extensively funding education, health care, and environmental policies.

See also


  1. "Benevolent Dictator? Thinking About MK Atatürk". Turkey File. October 19, 2009.
  2. 1 2 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. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
  4. "Benevolent Autocrats" (PDF).
  5. Ribeiro, Igor (February 25, 2009). "A "ditabranda" da Folha" (in Portuguese). Portal Imprensa. Archived from the original on 2012-02-01.
  6. Olson, Mancur (1993-01-01). "Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development". The American Political Science Review. 87 (3): 567–576. doi:10.2307/2938736. JSTOR 2938736.
  7. 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.
  8. Andjelic, Neven (2003). Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy. Frank Cass. p. 36. ISBN 0-7146-5485-X.
  9. Tierney, Stephen (2000). Accommodating National Identity: New Approaches in International and Domestic Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 90-411-1400-9.
  10. Naming Street After Tito Unconstitutional. Slovenia Times, 5 October 2011
  11. Eric Watson (March 27, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew & The Curious Legacies of "Benevolent Dictators"". The Policy Wire.
  12. "Mustafa Kemal Atatürk".
  13. BOO SU-LYN. "Obituary: Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent dictator". Malay Mail.
  14. Carlton Tan (March 23, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew leaves a legacy of authoritarian pragmatism". The Guardian.
  15. Peter Popham (March 23, 2015). "Lee Kuan Yew: An entirely exceptional leader who balanced authoritarianism with pragmatism". The Independent.
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