There are 55 authoritarian leaders in power throughout the world. Eleven of these leaders are 69 years old or older, and they are in varying stages of declining health. Most of these aging dictators, such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (73 years old), Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev (75 years old), and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (91 years old), have been in power for decades. At first blush this paints a hopeful picture for democracy watchers, who have recently documented a slow but steady authoritarian resurgence. Surely the fact that 20 percent of the world’s autocracies face the specter of succession provides an opportunity for new democracies to emerge — or does it?
Alternatively, perhaps the number of aging and ailing dictators is a cause for concern. Some fear that the deaths of these longtime leaders will spark intense political infighting or public unrest that could plunge their countries into chaos. The fact that most of this aging cohort, such as Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, has yet to identify a political successor seems to add credibility to these concerns.
Both perspectives seem plausible — but our research shows that there is little merit to either of them. In our review of the 79 dictators who have died in office from 1946 to 2014, we find that the death of a dictator almost never ushers in democracy. Nor does it typically bring down the regime. Instead, in the vast majority (92 percent) of cases, the regime persists after the autocrat’s death. The deaths of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2013, Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia in 2012, and Kim Jong Il in North Korea in 2011 illustrate this trend. Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential.
Not only is it exceedingly rare for an autocrat’s death in office to result in democracy, but it also does not improve a country’s longer-term prospects for liberalization. Leaders who come to power following the death of an autocrat and who seek to deviate from the status quo are likely to provoke resistance from the “old guard” — elements of the regime who maintain control over the levers of power and find it in their interest to limit changes in the new system.
It is often forgotten today that the brutal Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, came to power after his father’s death in 2000 with hopes of liberalizing his country.
It is often forgotten today that the brutal Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, came to power after his father’s death in 2000 with hopes of liberalizing his country. Soon after inheriting power, he began a series of political reforms, including efforts to increase press freedoms, release political prisoners, and expand Internet use. But President Assad’s ability to change the system was limited by influential figures from his father’s regime who exerted their political power and influence to block policy changes and inhibit their implementation.
We also find that coups and public revolts are rare following a dictator’s death. During the year of a leader’s death in office, coups have occurred in only 6 percent of cases, compared with 32 percent when autocrats have left power via other means. Similarly, mass public protests are far less likely to break out following a dictator’s death than after other forms of authoritarian leader exit. This pattern persists even when we adjust our time frame and look at the five-year period following a leadership transition.
In some cases, such as Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, the resilience of authoritarian regimes following the deaths of their leaders reflects the durability of monarchies, where highly institutionalized succession processes ensure stability across generations. In other cases, a regime’s resilience is driven by the ability of fathers to position their sons as heirs, such as in Syria (2000), Azerbaijan (2003), and Togo (2005). But countries with less formal or obvious mechanisms for succession, such as Venezuela in 2013, Zambia in 2008, or Turkmenistan in 2006, have also endured their leaders’ deaths.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that there is little change following a dictator’s death in office. Autocrats who die in office tend to be particularly adept politicians — having evaded myriad threats to their rule — and they are likely to have fashioned entrenched political systems capable of persisting beyond their passing. On average, dictators who die in office have enjoyed 16 years in power, compared with just seven for those who exit by all other means. Such longevity is only possible by developing an inner circle of elite supporters who are highly invested in the status quo and are equipped with institutions that they can use to maintain it. In other words, the very strategies that are key to a dictator’s ability to stay in office until death increase his regime’s resilience after his passing.
The presence of a well-functioning support party is among the key strategies that enhance the durability of autocracies and facilitate the succession process. A strong body of academic studies demonstrates the prolonging power of political parties in authoritarian settings. While these parties differ from political parties in democracies, they do serve important functions in autocracies, such as counterbalancing interventionist militaries, distributing benefits to citizens, and promoting the regime’s ideology. Moreover, well-functioning political parties can co-opt individuals with political aspirations or those seeking to gain access to the spoils of office. Once these potential political rivals to the regime are incorporated and incentivized to participate in the system, the party serves as a focal point for negotiations over the choice of a new leader who can continue to protect their interests.
Although a leader’s death in office infrequently prompts the downfall of the regime or instability, these events do occasionally occur. So when should we worry about prospects for instability? Regimes governed by “strongmen” — where political power is highly concentrated in the hands of an individual — tend to be more at risk of instability following a leader’s death. But even then, instability is rare because many personalized regimes rule with the aid of a political party. The depth of the party matters, and those that invest in their development tend to be the regimes that more seamlessly outlive the death of the leader. For example, after the deaths of the highly personalized regimes of both Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 2000 and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi in 2012, the ruling political parties — the Baathist Party in Syria and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front — were critical in ensuring the regimes’ resilience.
In addition to countries where the regime lacks an effective ruling party, we find that countries that have recently experienced protests and domestic instability also have an elevated risk of coups and protests in the wake of a leader’s death. These findings are consistent with a body of research indicating that recent instability enhances the prospects that a country will experience instability in the future. Periods of instability produce segments of the population with networks and experience that prove useful in mobilizing further protests in the face of any discontent during a leadership transition. For example, previous episodes of instability likely contributed to unrest in the aftermath of Guinean President Lansana Conté’s death in 2008 and Gabonese President Omar Bongo’s death in 2009.
In another small subset of cases that we reviewed, a leader’s death set into motion dynamics that spurred instability in the longer term. In these cases, instability stems not from immediate disagreements over a potential successor, but from the tactics the new leader uses to consolidate power. In ethnically or geographically divided societies, opportunistic leaders can leverage divisions to boost their popularity. This was the case in Ivory Coast, where the death of President Félix Houphouët-Boigny in 1993 triggered the rise of Ivoirian nationalism that planted the seeds for civil war nine years later.
In its 2015 “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House reported that the risk of a widespread democratic decline is higher now than at any time in the last 25 years. Unfortunately, our results show that the advanced age of 11 of the world’s autocrats offers little hope for reversing this trend. Instead of creating space for change, the deaths of these long-standing leaders will most likely leave in place the resilient autocratic systems they’ve created. Though most leadership transitions generate opportunities for political transformation in dictatorships, death in office is not among them. Death in office, it turns out, is a remarkably unremarkable event.