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, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey, Antonio Salazar of Portugal, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and France-Albert René of Seychelles.
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. 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:
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 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.
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, he was widely popular and was "seen by most as a benevolent dictator". He was a popular public figure both in Yugoslavia and abroad. Viewed as a unifying symbol, 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. Tito gained further international attention as the chief leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.
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.
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. 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.
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.' As a leader who was in power for thirty-one years from 1959 until 1990, 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".
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%.