10 Dictators Who 'Gave Up' Power

10 Dictators Who 'Gave Up' Power {
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Dictatorships. This type of government has no parliament with teeth, or a judiciary with bite. It’s a one-branch show run at the top by a dictator and his trusted yes-men. Corruption via overly complicated legislation runs rampant. Opposition parties are banned. Trade with the outside world is usually banned or heavily regulated. It’s an insult used in the West to hurl at electoral opponents. Blahblahblah. You know what a dictatorship is, and many scholars and journalists today are concerned that this form of government is flowering at the expense of the much-harder-to-maintain liberal democratic system. Vladimir Putin just won an “election” with 77 percent of the Russian vote. Viktor Orbán and his party in Hungary hold 133 out of 199 seats. Recep Tayy?p ErdoÄ?an is packing the Turkish judiciary with Islamists. Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki is, along with his party, working hard against the secular Western values of the European Union, which Poland voluntarily joined in 2004.

In the West, populism runs rampant. Trump governs the United States with a wicked wit. The collapse of the German political center has rocked European politics. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is promising good things to come if elected. In the U.K., Brexit and Theresa May. Venezuela and the Bolivarian socialist bloc is authoritarian and dissent routinely falls on deaf ears.

In China, the ongoing market-based revolution there has not yet led to a democratic one. If anything, with Premier Xi’s new constitutional amendment giving him tenure for life, it represents a backslide into authoritarian dictatorship.

Scholars have, since the end of World War II, tried to make sense of dictatorships. Hannah Arendt stands out as the best and brightest of the fold. Born in Germany to Jewish parents in 1906, Arendt dedicated her adult life to exploring the nature of power. (Shree Agnihotri, a budding legal theorist at NYU’s law school, has the best recent essay on Arendt’s arguments.) To soothe your anxiousness about the state of the world, here is a list of 10 dictators who "voluntarily" relinquished their power:

10. King Juan Carlos I. Juan Carlos should be a household name in the West. The monarch of Spain upon dictator Francisco Franco’s death, Juan Carlos was expected to continue Franco’s legacy of authoritarian rule. After all, he received a military education in Spain under the Franco regime and had a clear claim to the throne (although the throne itself was a complicated legal matter). Furthermore, Juan Carlos was an active member of Franco’s staff, even stepping in to fill Franco’s void when the fascist began to fall ill due to old age. When Franco died, Juan Carlos began to dismantle the Franco regime and helped usher a smooth transition to democratic rule.

9. Indira Gandhi. The only female (to date) Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mohandes) was the daughter of Jawaharal Nehru, the Indian politician who led the rebellion against the British Empire and served as India’s first Prime Minister. Ms. Gandhi implemented a State of Emergency in 1975 and for two years her government used emergency powers to crush dissent, censor the press, start two wars with Pakistan, and rewrite the Indian constitution so that the federalism of her father was replaced by a powerful central government. In 1977 she called elections, believing herself to be popular thanks to the heavily-censored press, and lost her seat to anti-Indira alliance. She won re-election to her seat in 1980 and remained in politics until she was murdered by some of her vengeful bodyguards in 1984.

8. Pinochet. Pinochet, really? Yup. Leftists really loathe Pinochet, due to the fact that he instigated a coup that overthrew a democratically-elected socialist government during the Cold War and presided over a military regime that implemented free market reforms that have made Chile the richest country in South America, so the Western narrative surrounding Pinochet has always been negative. Pinochet ruled Chile with an iron fist from 1974-90. He was especially harsh on trade unions and other leftists who were accustomed to using violence to get their way. Pinochet stepped down in 1990 when free and open elections he helped usher in were held. He continued to remain the commander-in-chief of the Chilean military, and has, since his retirement from that post in 1998, been the target of international legal prosecution in regards to human rights violations, tax fraud, and corruption. He fights the charges and lawsuits with the millions of dollars he amassed during his time as dictator of Chile.

7. Joaquim Chissano. Chissano was the dictator of Mozambique from 1986 -2005. A founding member of the Mozambique Liberation Front, Chissano fought the Portuguese before being named as the Head of the newly-established Foreign Ministry upon independence in 1975. An avowed socialist, Chissano’s regime was the target of Western Cold War machinations, so much so that for the first decade of Chissano’s rule Mozambique was mired in a civil war. Many brutalities were committed on both sides. In 1992 Chissano negotiated a truce with the rebels and immediately called for elections when the truce was finalized. Chissano won, twice (in 1994 and 1999), before stepping down after his second term as per the constitution’s stipulation. Chissano’s political reformation coincided with Mozambique’s economic reformation: socialist central planning was abandoned in favor of more market-based reforms, and Mozambique has performed admirably as a result.

6. Chun Doo-hwan. The weakest of South Korea’s many military dictators, Chun stepped down from power in 1988 after ruling the country under a state of emergency since 1980, when he and a number of his military school buddies orchestrated a coup upon the death of the powerful Park Chung-hee. Chun’s weakness was not domestic, where he exercised fairly ruthless efficiency in governance (and used North Korea as an excuse to do so), but international. The United States was growing tired of having one of its most important allies exercise authoritarian government, and pressure to open up governance amplified when Seoul was chosen as the host of the 1988 Olympic Games. In 1987 elections were held in South Korea for the first time in decades, and Chun presided over them before stepping down in 1988 to make way for the winner of the election.

5. João Figueiredo. Figueiredo was one of the Brazilian generals who ruled via junta during the Cold War, and came to sole power as president in 1979. The junta, which overthrew the Brazilian government in 1964, was ruthless towards leftists but also implemented a nationalist economic platform, which was at odds with the West and more in line with the Non-Aligned Movement (it also helps to explain, in part, Brazil’s weak economic performance over the last six decades). Economic malaise caused by the nationalist economic platform of the military led to widespread, sometimes violent, protests in 1984 and Figueiredo called for elections. He lost and stepped down. Figueiredo subsequently retired from public life and lived quietly, away from politics, until his death in 1999. The democratically-elected leader at the time of his death called for three days of mourning to mark Figueiredo’s passing from this life.

4. Daniel Ortega. The dictator of Nicaragua from 1979-90, Ortega and his leftist policies made a number of powerful enemies during the Cold War, including the United States and the Catholic Church. Under the guise of national security, Ortega’s regime was responsible for gross human-rights violations. In 1984, Nicaragua held free and open elections in which he was the winner. In 1990, he lost to the opposition and stepped down. Ortega ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996 and 2001. In 2005, he was again elected president of Nicaragua and has ruled the country ever since, implementing socialist economic policies that have kept Nicaragua’s citizens mired in poverty. While Ortega should be lauded for holding open elections in the midst of the Cold War, his landslide victories over the past two decades suggest he has more in common with the likes of Putin and Erdogan than Figueiredo or Chissano.

3. Julius Nyrere. The socialist dictator of Tanzania is perhaps most infamous for his forced collectivization efforts in the '60s and '70s, where Tanzania went from a net exporter of foods to a net importer, and the property rights of everybody were viciously violated in order to achieve “African socialism.” Aside from nearly starving Tanzania’s citizens and impoverishing them, Nyere was also instrumental in Tanzania’s war against another dictator, Idi Amin (who did not step down voluntarily). The war froze intra-African relations between a number of Tanzania’s neighbors for decades. Nyrere, seeing that his one-party socialist state was a failure, stepped down in 1985 and helped - behind the scenes - implement democratic reforms that has left Tanzania as a one-party state but one with free and open elections.

Um, that’s it. There’s only been eight dictators in the modern era that have voluntarily ceded power to an open electoral system. To fill out the rest of the “Top 10” list, here’s two people from the long-gone past who stepped down when the power was theirs to seize:

2. George Washington. George Washington?! Believe it, folks. Washington was in the position that most of the names on the list above him were in: the executive in charge of a country that had recently fought an anti-colonial war against a world power, and he had a military background to boot. After his second term in office, Washington resisted some calls for him to remain there, and instead turned the fragile republic over to an open election fought between two parties that had recently formed.

1. Cincinnatus. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was Washington’s hero. Cincinnatus was called upon by his fellow patricians to serve as dictator when crisis befell the Roman polity in 458 BC (and again in 439 BC). Cincinnatus heralded the call, and immediately stepped down when the crisis was judged by Cincinnatus and his aristocratic peers to be over. Part of this story is probably legend, but the city in Ohio, which I’ve never been to (and hopefully never will), can never do this man justice (especially with a team like the Bengals representing the city).

Further thoughts

Looking at these dictators, rare as they may be, I don’t see a decline in democracies worldwide. I see these “dictators” - Putin, ErdoÄ?an, Orbán, etc. - as populist political leaders dependent on democratic support to wield power (though the power they wield is more than I’m comfortable with). Putin isn’t collectivising farms. Orbán isn’t locking up political opponents in the name of socialism (or nationalism). ErdoÄ?an’s rise is a bit more troubling, but it’s not too far out of the norm for Turkish politics, especially when you consider the neighborhood Turkey resides in. Today’s autocrats are not socialists or Generals. They are populists with more bite than what Americans are accustomed to with their executive branch.

The New Autocrats are resisting the post-Cold War order: internationalist markets, internationalist political institutions, and secular, liberal values at odds with the conservatism of their poor folk. This reaction to change, this authoritarian impulse, should not go unchallenged by the West, but it should be better understood by Western observers.

I thank Andrei Znamenski, a historian at the University of Memphis, for helping to spark this post. Check out his website. Check out his YouTube page.



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