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Authoritarian Forms Of Leadership A Non-Universal Path towards Development

Updated: January 15, 2011 3:06 pm

Since the end of World War II, the Western world has supported the spread of democracy throughout the world. By the end of the 20th century, “about 60 per cent of countries in the world system had democratic procedures, compared to about 28 per cent in 1950 (O’Laughlin et al 1998, 546)”. The spread of democracies was theoretically supported by the controversial findings of the Correlates of War Project and assertions made by scholars such as Michael Doyle that “constitutionally secure liberal states have yet to engage in war with one another (Doyle 1983, 213)”. But despite the popularity of the democratic regime type, it has rarely been associated with rapid development in the recent past. Some scholars advocate the view that “the institutional characteristics and requirements for development and for democracy pull in opposite directions (Leftwich 2005, 689)”. But authoritarian regimes have not always been successful in implementing strategies of rapid development. “Nondemocratic countries have had an immense variety of performances, ranging from the spectacular in East Asia to disastrous in many nations of Africa (Bhagwati 2002, 151).” Authoritarian regimes can often run counter to promote development. And since so many have had short time horizons, situations occurred where “confiscations, repudiated loans, debased coinages and inflated currencies perpetrated by monarchs and dictators over the course of history are almost beyond counting (Olson 1993, 571)”. There is evidence that existence of an authoritarian regime does not necessarily correspond to successful developmentalism. However, much of successful developmentalism has had a form of authoritarian leaders as the driving force behind it. Since successful developers in this regime type like Chile, Taiwan and Korea have successfully created strong institutions, supported capital-intensive industry and developed economic strategies that focused on long-term benefits, authoritarian leadership has been conducive to rapid economic development. Though the link between successful developmentalism and authoritarian leadership is not universal, in most states that were committed to development, authoritarian leadership proved to be successful in achieving development goals.

                An authoritarian government can exist in a variety of different forms. For this article, I will focus on authoritarianism that showed forms of bureaucratic authoritarianism that was seen in countries like Chile and South Korea and what Tat Yan Kong calls a quasi-monolithic regime type in Taiwan. I also recognise that other forms populist authoritarianism seen during the Peron regimes in Argentina and military populism, as seen in Peru since 1968 were also conducive to successful developmentalism. What these forms of authoritarianism have in common is “these regimes try to eliminate spontaneous interest articulation and establish a limited number of authoritatively recognised groups that interact with the governmental apparatus in defined ways (Malloy 1977, 4)”. This, in turn, reduces the inefficiency that comes with dealing with an increased number of public interests. At the heart of successful development strategies is the need for rapid industrialisation, which has been “deemed to play a leading role in nation-building in developing world (Kiely 1998, 62)”. Authoritarian leaders have the advantage of isolating their policy-makers from the public and “required that the instruments of pressure and defense available to the popular classes be dismantled (Cardoso 1973, 147)”. This insulation allows leaders to drive through unpopular reforms on the path towards rapid industrialisation that will benefit the economy in the long-run. To achieve development successfully, strong institutions are a necessity. Authoritarianism has been associated with strong bureaucracies in the Bureaucratic-Authoritarian Industrialising Regime of South Korea, which create the “fusing of state and economic power in pursuit of comparative advantage in world markets (Cumings 1984, 32)”. Authoritarian regimes have been more willing to set up protectionist barriers and engage in “a period of withdrawal and self-reliant development as means to compete within the world system (Cumings 1984, 5)”. Authoritarian regimes that are committed to development and have succeeded as a consequence have often been classified by scholars as strong states. Migdal states that these strong state organisations “became the focal point for hopes of achieving broad goals of human dignity, prosperity and equity (Migdal 1988, 4)”. The ability of strong, authoritarian states to insulate themselves from the public, extract resources and make difficult decisions required to push their country towards a path of development is what made authoritarianism a way towards successful developmentalism in the 20th century.

                There have been several authoritarian-driven forms of development in the 20th century, which have succeeded in driving their countries towards a better economic present. For the purpose of this article, I will explore the case studies of South Korea, Taiwan and Chile and identify these authoritarian governments as examples of those who have progressed economically through successful development strategies. I will show how authoritarian leadership benefited the economic progress of these countries by outlining how the strong nature of these states provided for the institutions and economic model required for development. Then I will take the case of Africa and explore on a broad level how African authoritarian leaders have failed to develop at the same level as their other authoritarian counterparts across the world.

Authoritarian Developmentalism: Success Stories

South Korea

In the 1970s, serious economic problems had begun to emerge in Korea. There was a “growing reliance on external borrowing, weakening financial structure and balance-of-payments difficulties” and despite Korea’s egalitarian distribution of income, “neglect of the rural structure, inflationary pressures on real wages, government corruption and regional inequalities provided openings for the opposition (Haggard 1990, 130)”. The Korean bureaucratic authoritarian regime is said to have come into existence in 1971 after President Park Chung-hee declared an emergency. Korea’s authoritarian regime developed similar traits to South American governments. The popular sector was politically and economically excluded. Labor unions were restricted, elections were abolished and “the focus of economic policy was on overall economic growth, not on the improvement in the standard of living of the middle and lower classes (Im 1987, 239)”.

                Between 1962 and 1973, the country had retained democratic institutions but Im claims that a restricted democracy was maintained during this period and “the success of the country’s export platform provided the material base (Im 1987, 251)” for the maintenance of Park Chung-hee’s leadership. So in effect, since 1962, South Korea had maintained a form of authoritarian leadership through the continued rule of Park Chung-hee from 1962 to 1979. During this time, “Park’s strong commitment to development led to the ‘economy-comes-first’ principle (Jeon 1995, 74)”. In addition, development institutions like the Economic Planning Board were created at this time and “partisan-based elites were replaced by reformist administrative elites (Jeon 1995, 74)”. The strong institutions behind Park’s authoritarian leadership enabled the successful implementation of development policies towards long-term growth.

                During this time, the export platform guided the country through a successful development stage and “beginning in the mid-1970s, the country departed from its emphasis on labor-intensive manufactures in order to expand the heavy and chemical industries (Haggard and Moon 1990, 217)”. The implementation and change in strategy of the Korean state at this time was implemented through the existence of its strong, authoritarian state. Making difficult decisions that negatively affected segments of the population was achieved through the insulation of the authoritarian leader from the public. The government centralising control over policy and the change in economic policy enabled “80 per cent of total investment in manufacturing to go into heavy and chemical industries (Haggard and Moon 1990, 217)” between 1977 and 1979. After the assassination of Park in 1979, “the institutions of the new Fifth Republic exhibited fundamental continuities with the Yushin system: a strong president, a weak legislature and judicial system, limitations on political activity and an even more restricted press (Haggard and Moon 1990, 220)”. Fiscal restraint became a central component of the new regime’s stabilisation effort, with the rate of increase in government expenditures dropping between 1981 and 1984, and a “purification” campaign (to remove corrupt employees) eliminating more than 15,000 positions (Haggard and Moon 1990, 221). The new Chun regime succeeded in imposing “short-term adjustment costs on farmers, the bureaucracy and labor (Haggard and Moon 1990, 230)”.

                Park remains the central figure for economic development in Korean economic history. Between 1962 and 1979, the country experienced “rapid economic growth, producing a sustained investment boom throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Jeon 1995, 75)”. The authoritarian form of government in South Korea was emblematic of the long-term approach to development that ignored short-term public concerns of chronic inflation and inequality. Park’s form of rule proved conducive to long-term successful development and it is difficult to observe similar rapid achievements in democracies. As Kuznets said, “Because this regime has been authoritarian and has no economic interest base, it could hold down wages and consumption, largely ignore rural interests, and concentrate on rapid development through industrialisation (Kuznets 1977, 85).”


After the Kuomintang (KMT) was ousted from mainland China in 1949, they retreated to their island home and “sought balanced development, putting an equal emphasis on economic growth, price stability and income equality (Jeon 1995, 78)”. With “inflation and corruption diagnosed as causes of its loss of the mainland (Cheng 2001, 27),” the KMT regime based its development strategy “of stability and equity-based steady growth (Jeon 1995, 78)” on fiscal and monetary conservatism. In order to discontinue the practice of corrupt state business ties, the state remained “relatively neutral to sectoral or regional interest (Ho 1978, 251)”. Big business was excluded “from exerting direct influence over politics and policy at a national level (Kong 2004, 351)”. The new Taiwanese government attempted to learn from their past mistakes and implemented their authoritarian government towards a commitment to development.

                Taiwan’s development strategy was different from other Bureaucratic Authoritarian Regimes (BAR) like Korea. As a result, Kong calls Taiwan a “quasi-monolithic” authoritarian government. Kong states that in Taiwan, there was a fusion of ruling party-state relations, while in BARs, relations were separate. In Taiwan, state-led economies existed with weak big businesses and regimes dominated disorganised elites, while in BARs, state-led economies existed with strong big businesses and regimes dominated organised elites (Kong 2004, 349). Similar to Korea though, the KMT undertook an inward-looking Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) strategy in early years before moving to Export-Oriented Industrialisation (EOI) in the 1960s. The KMT’s economic policies were oriented towards growth and fiscal responsibility and its quest for growth-with-equity was achieved through “fostering agriculture by means of industry and fostering industry by virtue of agriculture (Yen 1982, 6)”. Starting with agricultural growth, Taiwan’s development strategy eventually shifted focus towards industrial growth, with a phase of industry-led agricultural growth through Chiang Ching-kuo’s Nine-Point Agricultural Reconstruction Program in 1972. These economic policies contributed towards “a firm basis for long-term price stabilisation, uninterrupted income distribution and steady economic growth (Jeon 1995, 80)”.

                Similar to other authoritarian governments, Taiwan “institutionalised the strong development state, based on strong economic will, pragmatic ideology and greater autonomy (Jeon 1995, 80)”. KMT authoritarianism was evident through the country’s economic policies and was “buttressed by military and police power, the absence of open political competition, a relatively large state-owned enterprise sector and control over commercial banks (Haggard 2004, 72)”. Like other authoritarian regimes, Taiwan developed planning agencies and bureaucracies that accompanied its strong state. The KMT utilised its strong institutions and authoritarian power to mould itself from being “once strong for retaking the mainland and guaranteeing KMT power to today being strong for economic development (Cumings 1984, 28)”. The authoritarian power of the KMT in Taiwan was the driving force for development in the region and it is difficult to see how democracies would have been able to achieve similar rapid results.


The Chilean model of development under General Pinochet became “one of the standard cures touted for nearly any country seeking to make the transition from socialist poverty (Codevilla 1993, 127)”. Characterised by somewhat free-market motives, Pinochet implemented a well-governed, highly coercive rule over a strong, competent state with a small population. After General Pinochet successfully defeated the Salvador Allende government in a coup in 1973, liberal reforms were implemented simultaneously while “stabilisation programs were pursued to control inflation (Estrada-Lopez 2003, 170)”. Till 1983, economic reforms showed little signs of success in terms of achieving sustained growth or stabilising the economy. Pinochet “imported virtually without reservation the strict monetarist and laissez-faire doctrines inspired by Milton Friedman (Kaufman 1979, 180),” since rescuing the inflationary and balance of payments crises and attracting foreign investors and lenders was the immediate priority. All import, price and distribution controls were removed by Pinochet’s government and “over 300 firms nationalised by Allende were returned to their former owners (Kaufman 1979, 180)”. Further, Pinochet’s determination to attract foreign capital was observed through Chile’s withdrawal from the Andean Pact in 1979.

                Chile’s long-term development strategy revolved around expansion and diversification of exports, with a new organisation PROCHILE “charged with developing foreign markets for Chilean wines, fruits, shoes, textiles, leather products and paper (Kaufman 1979, 180)”. Chile’s development is significant since it achieved significant growth with low inflation rates. Though this came at a high cost of social deprivation and de-industrialisation, Chile remained relatively well-governed. The country also managed to liberalise its finances and experienced economic booms and crashes during its development.

                Though Chile suffered from poverty and unemployment between 1973 and 1984, it has subsequently “achieved high economic growth, based on primary-goods specialisation (Estrada-Lopez 2003, 178)”. The Chilean authoritarian government undertook a long-term approach to their development strategy and eventually reaped dividends. Pinochet managed to develop the country on an individual level as well: When Eduardo Frei transferred the presidency to Allende in 1970, Chile was the world’s second largest recipient of foreign aid per capita. “Yet only half the homes in the country had inside bathrooms. In 1990, despite Chile being the target of trade boycotts, disinvestment and foreign aid cutoffs, about nine out of ten Chilean homes had them (Codevilla 1993, 129)”. Chile did not fully develop by the early 1980s but Pinochet managed to lead the country through a difficult short-term and embrace a commitment to long-term economic development. Pinochet’s model was a mixture “of political repression and economic liberalism with an imposed period of economic austerity and political stasis, after which the country emerged with a lean free-market economy (Codevilla 1993, 127)”. Pinochet successfully managed to gain extreme authoritarian power. As Silva points out, his “one-man rule had concentrated power at the top to such a degree that it seemed as if the state had developed virtually complete autonomy from all social groups (Silva 1993, 526)”. This concentration of power enabled him to implement successful policies, which hurt section of the population in the short-run. Making these difficult decisions and isolating himself from public pressure is unique to the ability of authoritarian leaders and something that is difficult to achieve in democracies.

The Authoritarian Developers

Through looking at the cases of Korea, Taiwan and Chile, it is clear that authoritarianism has made it easier for states to implement their development strategies and make decisions that may be detrimental in the short-run. It is also useful note that all these states could be classified as strong states, which “can formulate policy goals independently of particular groups, can change group or class behavior and can change the structure of society (Krasner 1977, 644)”. All these states were also committed to development and were characterised by promotion of exports, free trade zones and producing specialised products. At the same time, there is debate about whether these states could have achieved their development strategies without authoritarian leadership. Some scholars like Bhagwati claim that Far Eastern authoritarianism would not have succeeded without the high degree of income equality and racial and religious homogeneity (Bhagwati 1995, 51). Olson agrees “that relatively poor countries can grow extraordinarily rapidly when they have a strong dictator who happens to have unusually good economic policies,” but he contends that “such growth lasts only for the ruling span of one or two dictators (Olson 1993, 572)”. But Chile, South Korea and Taiwan have been identified as some of the most startling rises to development in our time and their achievements cannot simply be put down to coincidence. These countries have successfully transitioned between development strategies such as ISI and EOI and heavy industrialisation, with such transitions requiring difficult economic sacrifices that are more easily enforceable by authoritarian rule. The conduciveness of the authoritarian regime type to development when there is a commitment to economic progress is difficult to disagree with, especially with relation to these three countries.

The failure of Authoritarian Developmentalism


In the 1960s, much of Africa became independent. And with the promise of independence came the hope for rapid development. “During the period 1960-1973, growth in Africa was more rapid than in the first half of the century (Collier and Gunning 1999, 3).” But in the 1970s, African politics and economics fell away. “African nations hardened into autocracy and dictatorship, while economies first faltered and then started to decline (Collier and Gunning 1999, 3).” Western pressure saw African nations adopt structural adjustment programmes which have perpetuated their patronage networks and trapped them in an aid-dependent stage. It can be argued that authoritarian leaders in Africa are not like authoritarian leaders in Latin America or East Asia. They are constrained by the West, lack strong institutional capacities and lack the domestic savings or the political and economic structure to capture the required funds needed to be truly independent. No African state has been able to successfully mould itself in the form of a strong, authoritarian state, like Chile, South Korea or Taiwan.

                The push for structural adjustment has been accompanied with a push for democracy, “which was seen by new African rulers and emerging local entrepreneurs as obstructive of both corporate and private accumulation. It forced rulers and entrepreneurs to be accountable to the wider populace for the way they handled public resources (Bangura 1992, 62)”. This is unlike other successful authoritarian developmentalist forms around the world where leaders are insulated from their public. Couple that with the fact that “most dictatorships are especially susceptible to succession crises and uncertainty (Olson 1993, 572),” and African authoritarianism does not seem comparable to other parts of the world. Since African leaders have a different set of interests, partly because of the difference in political and economic circumstances with other parts of the world, there is no guarantee they are motivated towards long-term benefits or policies that will generate growth. Authoritarian forms of government across the world are not conducive to successful developmentalism. What is necessary is an independent political and economic leadership that are committed to the processes of development.


I agree that authoritarianism does not universally lead to successful developmentalism. But in the latter half of the 20th century, a number of countries with authoritarian leaders managed to develop economically at a rapid pace and it is my contention that the regime time was conducive to this progress, especially when the leaders were committed to development. Bhagwati argues that “development is many-sided; it is not just the growth rates of income (Bhagwati 2002, 156)” and goes as far as social needs. In terms of this article and in most scholarly debates, we measure development in economic terms such as growth rates and inflation. He argues that “authoritarian governments may be prone to extravagance and waste, inhibiting development (Bhagwati 2002, 155)”. To say that democracies do not waste would assume that there are adequate checks and balances in every democratic government, which is a fallacy in even the largest democracies in the world such as India and the United States. The question is often asked that if the state is so autonomous, why does it not abuse its power and resort to predation. Scholars provide different answers to this. One example of which is what Doner, Ritchie and Slater call, “strategic vulnerability” governments only implement these policies when there is a “credible threat of unmanageable mass unrest, the heightened need for foreign exchange and war material induced by national security, and hard budget constraints (Doner et. al. 2005, 328)”.

                At the same time, some scholars claim that “the final conclusion is obvious: the transition to a market economy under present domestic and international conditions requires an authoritarian regime (Brucan 1992, 24)”. It is impossible to ignore the failure of authoritarian governments in countries around the world, especially in the continent of Africa, to develop in the same way as Chile, South Korea or Taiwan. In fact, democracy has even been successful for large states in the past, as seen through India after the country began to open up its markets. However, my contention remains that there is a definite link between authoritarianism and development, especially if the authoritarian leader has shown a commitment to development.


In previous pages, I have shown how authoritarianism, as a regime type, has been conducive to long-term development strategies such as in Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s and 1980s, Park’s Korea between the 1960s and 1980s, and in KMT-ruled Taiwan. These economies concentrated their administrative and policy-making power in the hands of the executive and ruling elite. This aided leaders in making difficult decisions during times of economic transition. The transition from IS of light industry to IS of heavy industry necessitates temporary economic sacrifices only enforceable by authoritarian rule. When their old economies reached exhaustion points, high inflation could only be resolved by attracting foreign investment and altering their development strategies. With this change, came the existence of losers and authoritarianism was particularly adept at forcing these ‘losers’ to acquiesce. In these states, the building of strong institutional capacities became a priority. These successful developmental states were located in the regions that traditionally “have been higher on the spectrum of capabilities than that in Sierra Leone (Migdal 1988, 266)”. They employed patterns of rapid industrialisation and export-oriented strategies during their phases of development. Diversifying their exports came with a price for farmers that could only have been implemented by strong leadership and insulation from public interests. At the heart of these authoritarian forms of rule was the leader’s political isolation. While it may be attributed to their personal characteristics, “it was forced on them by the economic logic of the situation and the corresponding orthodoxy of their economists to create conditions sufficient for the entry of international capital (O’Donnell 1978, 18)”. Without this attribute, it would be difficult to see these authoritarian rulers industrialise and develop at the pace they did.

                At the same time, it must be recognised that an authoritarian form of rule does not necessarily lead to successful developmentalism. I have shown through a broad overview of Africa how rulers were forced to ignore the long-term development needs of the country to maintain their unstable position in power and how their dependency on the West and large patrimonial networks inhibited them from following constructive policies towards development. While recognising the failure of authoritarian-led development in Africa, it is important to recognise the strides made by countries like Chile, South Korea and Taiwan. A further comparison between democracy and authoritarianism can be made through Bhagwati’s comparison of the totalitarian state of China with the democratic state of India. Bhagwati discusses the question at play: “Once you are committed to development, which political regime is likely to facilitate the fulfillment of that goal? (Bhagwati 2002, 152)” He discusses the Harrod-Domar model of development which takes into account the two parameters of rate of investment and productivity of capital. Out of this model, the debate centered around the political form that was best suitable for promoting investment. “But if the focus was on accumulation, it appeared evident that democracies would be handicapped vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes (Bhagwati 2002, 152).” Bhagwati observed that authoritarian regimes have the upper hand when it comes to accumulation at the very least. I would conclude by reiterating my argument that authoritarian regimes, in the latter half of the 20th century, were able to create political environments that were conducive (though not universally) to successful developmentalism.

By Pritish Behuria

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