The Most Successful Dictators Of The Past Century

Lee Kuan YewLee Kuan Yew got it done in Singapore

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

America has spent the past century promoting democracy around the world, insisting that our form of government is the fastest route to modern society.From Franco to Chiang Kai-Shek, however, many dictators have fostered impressive economic growth.

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UCLA’s Daniel Treisman identified some of the most successful dictators in a brilliant article at NBER. Treisman looked at GDP growth under leaders who registered less than 6 points on the Polity2 scale of democracy.

High development is associated with democracy in the long run, but dictatorship in the short run. This bodes well for countries like Egypt:

The reason is that, for the most part, higher income only prompts a breakthrough to more democratic politics after the incumbent leader falls from power. And in the short run, faster economic growth increases the leader’s odds of survival. This logic—for which I provide evidence at the levels of individual countries and the world—helps explain why democracy advances in waves followed by periods of stasis and why dictators, concerned only to entrench themselves in power, end up preparing their countries to leap to a higher level of democracy when they are eventually overthrown.

#13 Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal

Ruled from 1952 to 1984.

Provided a 2.70x increase in GDP per capita.

After three decades of ruling Mongolia under the Communist Party, Tsedenbal's efforts to unite Mongolia with the Soviet Union was met with strong resistance. He and his Russian-born wife were stripped of their titles and he died in Moscow in 1991.

10 years after Tsedenbal's exit, the country's Polity2 democracy score surged 16 points higher.

#12 Habib Bourguiba

Ruled from 1957 to 1987.

Provided a 2.73x increase in GDP per capita.

Bourguiba led the fight for Tunisia's independence from France and became the first President of the Republic of Tunisia. During his rule, the country moved from a one- to multi-party state, women were granted the right to vote and polygamy was rejected. His inability to revive the country's economy ultimately led to his demise. In 1987, a team of doctors pronounced him 'unfit to rule.' He died in 2000.

10 years after Bourguiba's exit, the country's Polity2 democracy score increased by 4 points.

#11 Deng Xiaoping

Ruled from 1980 to 1997.

Provided a 2.84x increase in GDP per capita.

With his focus on reforming China's educational system and steering the country away from Maoism, Deng is believed to be the driving force behind the beginning of China's ascent to becoming a global power.

After being exiled for many years, he was brought back into leadership at the age of 73. Deng died in Peking, China in 1997.

10 years after Deng's death, the country's Polity2 democracy ceased to change.

#10 Todor Zhivkov

Ruled from 1956 to 1989.

Provided a 2.92x increase in GDP per capita.

With 35 years of leadership in Bulgaria, Zhivkov is the longest-serving ruler in Eastern Europe. His resignation appeared to be voluntary, but within a month, he was arrested and accused of abusing his powers by the Bulgaria Communist Party. He died in 1998.

10 years after Zhivkov's exit, the country's Polity2 democracy score surged 15 points higher.

#9 António de Oliveira Salazar

Ruled from 1932 to 1968.

Provided a 2.97x increase in GDP per capita.

Salazar was originally sent to seminary school to become a priest but eventually graduated with an economics degree and became a professor. His articles led to his rise in fame and Portugal's government. During his reign, the country experienced strong cooperations between church and state. After more than three decades in power, he suffered a stroke and coma and was not aware his position has been replaced. Salazar died in 1970.

10 years after Salazar's exit, the country's Polity2 democracy score increased by 18 points.

#8 Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Ruled from 1953 to 1979.

Provided a 3.03x increase in GDP per capita.

The Shah Pahlavi took the throne in Iran before his 22nd birthday and married a princess of Egypt. He would marry three more times.

Despite opposition, he crowned himself King of Kings (Emperor) and replaced the Islamic calender with one created 25 centuries earlier. His rule ended in revolution in 1979 and he lived in exile until his death a year later.

10 years after Pahlavi's reign, the country's Polity2 democracy score increased 10 points.

#7 Suharto

Ruled from 1966 to 1998.

Provided a 3.29x increase in GDP per capita.

In the 1960s, Suharto's rise to power as the second president of Indonesia resulted in the massive bloodshed of approximately 50,000 lives. During his 32-year reign, Indonesia experienced economic growth but also government brutality and corruption.

He was driven from power with riots and chaos in 1998. Shortly before his departure, 500 students perished in a protest.

Suharto is believed to have embezzled $15 to $35 billion, according to the United Nations and World Bank.

10 years after Suharto's exit, the country's Polity2 democracy score surged 16 points higher.

#6 Park Chung-hee

Ruled from 1961 to 1979.

Provided a 3.44x increase in GDP per capita.

Once sentenced to death, Park was later pardoned and eventually took control of South Korea in the 1960s.

In 1974, he survived an assassination attempt but the attack killed his wife. He continued his speech despite his wife's fatal wounds. At the end of his term, he was assassinated by his close friend and head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.

He was believed by some to be a cryto-communist.

10 years after Park's exit, South Korea's Polity2 democracy score increased by 15 points.

#5 Juan Vicente Gomez

Ruled from 1908 to 1935.

Provided a 3.78x increase in GDP per capita.

During Gomez's strict reign, coffee exports and petroleum boomed in Venezuela.

Some believe his term marked the separation between Venezuela's authoritarian past and its democratic present. During this period, the country also experienced the beginnings of a new, urban middle class.

Gomez ruled until his death and never married.

10 years after Gomez's death, Venezuela experienced a 12 point increase in their Polity2 democracy score.

#4 Chiang Kai-shek

Ruled from 1950 to 1975.

Provided a 3.85x increase in GDP per capita.

With a military background, Chiang took part in the revolution against China's Qing dynasty and became a member of the Chinese Nationalistic Party.

In 1949, his party was defeated by the Communist during a civil war and Chiang fled to the island of Taiwan with his supporters.

He ruled the exiled government in Taiwan for the next 25 years until his death.

Taiwan's Polity2 democracy score only increased by 1 point 10 years after Chiang's death.

#3 Francisco Franco

Ruled from 1939 to 1975.

Provided a 4.36x increase in GDP per capita.

In 1926, Spain's Franco was appointed Europe's youngest general and later acquired a reputation as a cruel leader, responsible for the deaths of approximately 200,000 prisoners.

In 1947, he established a referendum that guaranteed him a lifetime of power. He ruled until his death in 1975.

10 year's after Franco's exit, Spain's Polity2 democracy score surged by 17 points.

#2 Lee Kuan Yew

Ruled from 1959 to 1990.

Provided a 6.50x increase in GDP per capita.

In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia with the help of its leader Lee Kuan Yew.

During his reign, the country's economy flourished and Asia's best health and education systems developed.

Lee stepped down from his position in 1990 at the age of 87.

10 years after Lee's exit, the country's Polity2 score increased by 9 points.

#1 King Idris

Ruled from 1951 to 1969.

Provided a 9.78x increase in GDP per capita.

He was born Sayyid Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi and was recognised as Sanousi Amir before becoming King of the United Kingdom of Libya.

While on vacation in Turkey, King Idris was overthrown by Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi in 1969. He lived in exile in Egypt until his death 1983.

10 years after King Idris' exit from power, Libya's Polity2 democracy score has not changed.

Some leaders don't know when to say goodbye

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