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I'm looking for examples, if any, where the head of a government actively strove to move towards a more democratic system, despite doing so requiring them to give up personal power. I'd accept any individual who had a large amount of ruling power and expectation of being able to maintain that power, be it king, dictator, or some other type of leader.

I'm looking for someone who actively facilitated a migration to a democratic system, not one that had it forced upon them. Giving up power to avoid an uprising, assassination, or other worse fate wouldn't count. Put simply I'm looking for cases when a leader chose to give up power.

Assuming any such case existed I'd be interested in a brief description of how it happened. Specifically what was the stated, and actual, motive of the leader for wanting to do so, and how effective was their effort in creating a persistent move towards a more democratic systems?

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikhail_Gorbachev
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 15, 2023 at 21:16
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    not one that had it forced upon them. That might be opinable. Even if there is no imminent threat, it can be that long term pressure may force the hand of the autocrat. Then it is a matter of interpretation of how much he wanted the change or if he saw it as a lesser evil. For examples, democratic transitions in Chile and Spain.
    – SJuan76
    Dec 15, 2023 at 21:19
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    I agree with SJuan76 that this question is too opinion-based to be decisevely answerable but Chang Ching-kuo of Taiwan could be on the list if "dictator" isn't a bit too strong.
    – Brian Z
    Dec 16, 2023 at 0:39
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    Remember, the "dictator", rather than "king", side of this question is, naturally, going to refer to some very, very, questionable people. So, please don't interpret an answer citing a dictator here as an endorsement of that person or absolution of their misdeeds as a dictator. The only issue is whether they fit the OP's criteria: "not one that had it forced upon them" and left of their free will. That's by the very nature of the question. Dec 16, 2023 at 6:00
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    Just a comment since probably not what you're looking for but Sulla en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sulla seized ruling power in the Roman Republic (for a time his office was, literally, dictator :) and ended up by retiring to private life and encouraging the political system to go back to regular running. Whether the Roman Republic counts as a "democratic system" might be dubious but it was surely "more democratic" when running without one man at the top. So whether this is useful might depend on why you are interested in the question... (e.g. the character traits of such people, or other) Dec 16, 2023 at 19:17

7 Answers 7

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Bhutan is the best example I can think of - the 'Dragon King' of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ruled the country for 33 years, and then voluntarily devolved power to transform his kingdom into a parliamentary democracy.

Pavan K. Varma, an Ambassador of India to Bhutan in 2009 describes this transformation in an article he wrote for The Hindu newspaper:

In March 2008 , the kingdom of Bhutan ... became the world’s youngest democracy. An absolute monarchy gave way to a constitutional monarchy, a new Constitution mandating a parliamentary democracy was adopted, and, for the first time, the people of Bhutan voted, on the basis of universal suffrage, to elect a new Parliament consisting of a National Council or Upper House with 25 members, and a National Assembly or Lower House with 47 members.

... The Wangchuck dynasty came to power in 1907 by uniting a bunch of warring chieftains. The fourth king in this dynasty, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, assumed power in July 1972 ... Jigme Wangchuck brought to the throne a wisdom and sagacity that belied his youthfulness and lack of experience ... First, he transferred most of his powers to a nominated Council of Ministers, thereby volitionally diluting the concentration of power in the throne.

Finally, and most dramatically, in December 2005, when he was only 50 years of age, he announced his decision to abdicate from the throne in 2008 in favour of his eldest son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. This announcement was accompanied by a royal command that work on a new Constitution must begin immediately with the express purpose of converting Bhutan into a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy.

Why did Jigme Singye Wangchuck ... take these momentous decisions which would curtail his own absolute powers, especially since there was no political restlessness seeking a change of the polity? ... The answer quite simply is that Jigme Wangchuck had the political incisiveness, rarely seen in monarchs, to pre-empt history. He knew that in a rapidly globalising world, Bhutan could not sustain its isolationist path; he also knew, looking at developments in neighbouring Nepal, that sooner or later there would be a democratic challenge to an absolute monarchy. In view of this, he chose to anticipate the inevitable by initiating change himself. - How democracy took roots in Bhutan

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He's in the doghouse these days for dodgy financials and elephant safaris but Juan Carlos of Spain seems to somewhat fit the role in 1975.

King Juan Carlos I began his reign as head of state without leaving the confines of Franco's legal system. As such, he swore fidelity to the Principles of the Movimiento Nacional (National Movement), the political system of the Franco era; took possession of the crown before the Francoist Cortes Españolas; and respected the Organic Law of the State for the appointment of his first head of government. Only in his speech before the Cortes did he indicate his support for a transformation of the Spanish political system. *

Franco and Francoism had strong, if complex, monarchist tendencies and a restored democracy was not obviously to the king's interest after Franco's death.

The 1947 Law of Succession made Spain a de jure kingdom again, but defined Franco as the head of state for life with the power to choose the person to become King of Spain and his successor.

In 1947, Franco proclaimed Spain a monarchy through the Ley de Sucesión en la Jefatura del Estado act but did not designate a monarch. He had no particular desire for a king because of his strained relations with the legitimate heir to the Crown, Juan of Bourbon. Therefore, he left the throne vacant with himself as regent and set the basis for his succession. This gesture was largely done to appease monarchist factions within the Movement.

* if there ever are occasions where one of those lame "person X reacts to event Y" YouTube videos would be good, this would surely be one of them. Would have loved to see the faces of the political attendees.

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  • More information about this example here.
    – J.G.
    Dec 16, 2023 at 13:24
  • Not very familiar with Spanish history, is Juan of Bourbon the same as Juan Carlos I mentioned at the opening of the answer? Dec 16, 2023 at 17:29
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    FWIW: Juan Carlos, to at least some people, is looked as a justification for keeping ceremonial monarchies around. While non-monarchists can cast a jaundiced look at say the UK royals, there is no denying that if a constitutional coup put in place a questionable PM as a "dictator" in the UK, a Royal pronouncement that he was unfit for that role would carry massive weight in public opinion, even if it had limited legal basis (and cost the king their job). So kings can, under certain conditions be considered safeguards. Dec 16, 2023 at 19:13
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    @RussellMcMahon VEIII was not instrumental at all in Mussolini's removal - if anyone in the royal family acted, it was his son. But that was just a reaction to Mussolini losing WWII, and sorry they get no credit from me for acting when they had no other option. VEIII did not have to support Mussolini early on, the march on Rome could easily have been dispersed by the army and he ordered that they stood aside and let the blackshirts enter Rome Dec 19, 2023 at 9:52
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    @RussellMcMahon If you want to have a discussion, maybe we should move to chat :). But exactly, what did Vittorio Emmanuele III did? He repeatedly refused to dismiss Mussolini as prime minister despite the advice of everyone around him, and started treating with the allies only when it was really unavoidable (even then asking ridiculous promises to preserve the Italian colonial empire - I mean, you lost...). It's not a coincidence that when the need for an anti-fascist monarchy became obvious, he was quietly "retired" and his son Umberto was made regent instead. Dec 19, 2023 at 10:09
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Augusto Pinochet in Chile, head of a military coup in 1973, and subsequently leader of a military junta which governed the country for sixteen years. The junta suspended any previous government, and Pinochet eventually was installed (without democratic process) as president. In 1981, a newly-crafted constitution took effect (through a democratic process of sorts--although its legitimacy is hotly debated to this day). This new constitution called for the institution of democratic presidential elections after a transition period, where Pinochet participated as a candidate, but lost to Patricio Aylwin.

A referendum on whether Augusto Pinochet, the head of a military dictatorship, should become president for eight years under resumed civilian rule was held in Chile on October 5, 1988. The "No" side won with 56% of the vote, marking the end of Pinochet's 16-and-a-half-year rule. Democratic elections were held in 1989, leading to the establishment of a new government in 1990. Wikipedia

About the reasons he had for supporting this referendum, it would seem that it was in hopes of being validated as a democratically elected leader, in order to stay in power for an extended time. However, from a pragmatic point of view, the referendum was apparently carried out legitimately, and he eventually respected the result, spending quite some time at the end of his life in a bad public light mainly because of human rights violations under his rule; although he was never properly processed as a criminal.

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    I am going to give a cautious upvote to this. Nice things being said about Pinochet leaves a nasty taste, but I do think this answer has a point. Pinochet did leave. Now, whether he was under sufficient pressure to not make his staying around viable I am not so sure about, but I don't know that he did. People like Marcos (Philippines) a Duvalier (Haiti) certainly left because they had no choice. Pinochet, whatever his crimes as a dictator, seems, as I recall to have left under more peaceful circumstances: at the time -1990- I don't recall hearing of a civil war or anything like that Dec 16, 2023 at 5:51
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    My underdstanding is that Pinochet didn’t leave of his own volition, but because the military, on whose support he crucially depended, had thrown him under the bus and forced him to respect the result of the referendum. In fact, the linked Wikipedia article concurs: scroll down to “Aftermath” en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . Dec 16, 2023 at 10:02
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    @IP4M, I'm struggling to see the nice things I said about Pinochet. "Never properly processed as a criminal" doesn't mean that he wasn't one (although the same could be said of many democratic politicians). He supported a referendum that was eventually carried out democratically, and that was enough to make him a valid answer to this question, I think, even if he had to be obligated by his military companions to adhere to the procedure that the 1980 constitution put in place.
    – Conrado
    Dec 16, 2023 at 12:43
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    What an authoritarian state writes in its constitution is often quite disconnected from reality. Pinochet clearly didn’t intend the referendum as a transition to democracy, but as a fig leaf to legitimize his own power; he initially had no doubt he would win, and just to be sure, the rules for campaigning were rigged in his favour; and when he lost the vote after all, he didn’t intend to honour the result, but wanted to keep in power (after staging chaos as a pretext), and this was prevented only by refusal of the rest of the military junta. Thus, he certainly didn’t choose to give up power. Dec 16, 2023 at 13:06
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    @Conrado Oh, I didn't mean you actually said nice things. But to see him mentioned here can certainly be interpreted, by some, not me, as polishing his legacy. Sorry for the confusion. I meant that widespread dislike for Pinochet - "how can anything nice be said about him?" - should not disqualify this answer. I added a comment here that dictators, by definition won't be nice guys, but they count for this Q. Instead I moved it to under the Q itself. Dec 16, 2023 at 18:58
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King George Tupou V of Tonga gave up a lot of his power in favor of a constitutional monarchy in 2010. From what I can tell, this move wasn't exactly spearheaded by the monarch himself. There had been agitation among the Tongan people for more representation in the years prior, including pro-democracy riots in 2006; and there had been concerns about financial mismanagement during his father's reign. Still, Tupou V was quoted as being in favor of the reforms at the time, saying that

I think it's a natural development of the original 19th century constitution. It's an attempt to take the principles of that constitution and apply them in 21st century idiom, which of course has to be democracy. ... I have always wanted to do this for the country, and it's a very practical idea, our political life has to travel the same speed, the same level as the development of our economic life.

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Queen Mary could have taken the English throne in her own right as an absolute monarch like her father James II, but instead insisted on ruling jointly with her husband William of Orange and accepted the Declaration of Right which for the first time set out the supremacy of Parliament over the Crown.

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    I'm not so sure she could have done so. Parliament had demonstrated that it was not unwilling or unable to remove a monarch. Mary and William's only claim was through the act of Parliament, and if Mary had chosen to reject the Declaration of Right, she'd have found herself on the same boat that her father James II had been exiled in.
    – James K
    Dec 16, 2023 at 15:36
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    On the other hand, the creeping loss of power from Anne to Victoria, does give an example of a monarchy giving up power. Particularly under George I and III
    – James K
    Dec 16, 2023 at 15:38
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    @JamesK Parliament had previously demonstrated that it was not unwilling or unable to remove a recalcitrant monarch's head;-) Dec 16, 2023 at 21:17
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South Africa's F. W. de Klerk comes to mind.

Quoting Wikipedia:

After Botha resigned in 1989, de Klerk replaced him, first as leader of the NP and then as State President. Although observers expected him to continue Botha's defence of apartheid, de Klerk decided to end the policy. He was aware that growing ethnic animosity and violence was leading South Africa into a racial civil war. // ... //

He permitted anti-apartheid marches to take place, legalised a range of previously banned anti-apartheid political parties, and freed imprisoned anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela. He also dismantled South Africa's nuclear weapons program.

He received the Nobel Prize in 1993 jointly with Nelson Mandela for steering the country out of apartheid and into a democratic nation.

See also Britannica's article.

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As an aside to the above correct answers, you might also find it interesting to read about King Sihanouk of Cambodia, who did the opposite - he's a King who introduced democracy to increase his power!

The King, as a largely ceremonial figurehead, spent the 40s and early 50s winning Cambodia's independence from France and shaping it as a nice, palatable modern parliamentary democracy. He then abdicated as King to run for the (far more powerful) office of Prime Minister, knowing he had many safe votes in a country where the notion of the Deva-raja (God-King) still held some sway.

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  • (For the record, there is no "above" or "below"; the answers are sorted in whichever order the visitor prefers.)
    – tripleee
    Mar 18 at 7:45

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