by Ivan MarovicNovember 30, 2022
In the previous post, I discussed how personal rule works and why appointing an heir is so problematic for many autocrats. Vladimir Putin just celebrated his 70th birthday last month, and nothing seems to indicate a plan—even a hint—of a managed succession. The war in Ukraine and tremendous suffering caused by it focus our attention to Ukrainians, their resistance and bravery. But in Moscow, instability is brewing under the surface, fueled by Putin’s mortality and a lack of successor. This instability could lead to a quake, a tremble, while Putin is still alive.
This is what happened in Zimbabwe in 2017, at least. Ninety-three-year-old Robert Mugabe was deposed that year in a coup d’état, amid rumors that his wife Grace would succeed him. One of the factions, called Lacoste, associated with then-vice president Mnangagwa, conspired with the top brass of the armed forces, seized president Mugabe and put him under house arrest. Lacoste won a power struggle against the rival Generation 40 faction, which had coalesced around Grace Mugabe. It was Robert Mugabe’s decision to demote vice president Mnangagwa, as rumors were spreading that his wife would succeed him, that triggered all this havoc... ultimately ending his 37-year rule. The instability caused by the problem of succession can thus manifest itself before the dictator dies. This causes him to lose power.
The reason we try to understand the succession crisis that embroils many dictatorships is rather practical: we would like to figure out ways for movements to use this opportunity to expand political space, maybe even push the regime for concessions and, further down the road, achieve substantive political changes towards democratization. The wobble that the “S-word”, succession, represents should be seen an opportunity for the movement, but one that does not automatically lead to disintegration regime. Change from dictatorship to democracy is a larger societal and political process, not just a trading-out of players at the head of a regime.
Before we attempt to come up with a movement strategy in case of a succession crisis, we need to analyze the regime’s pillars of support—institutions and organizations that make ruling the country possible. Some of these pillars are formal institutions of the state, while others can be informal, but still perform a particular function in the regime.
Here we should identify various factions that are contesting for power. The goal of this step is to understand the sources of these factions’ power, their strengths and their weaknesses, but most importantly, their competing interests. In other words, we need to understand the nature of their interdependence and how their interests are in conflict; what alliances, comprised of different factions, can we expect to see emerge in the power vacuum that a dictator’s passing would create? This exercise is useful, if for nothing more than to be able to navigate in the turmoil following (or sometimes preceding) the death of the dictator.
But in some cases, dissidents may be able to prepare even more. They can formulate a list of demands, like the release of political prisoners or the end of a state of emergency. Such demands were outlined in the Statement of 99 Intellectuals which marked the beginning of the Damascus Spring in 2000, after the death of Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad.
Formulating demands serves a particular purpose: to give a voice to a large segment of society that is not represented in the struggle between factions for succession. It also helps bring out another political force, at least in potentia: one that is not fighting for power, but for change. Even if a formulation of demands is not followed by mobilization around those demands, it still modifies the political dynamic somewhat and creates a little wrinkle in the power vacuum. It is disruption.
Movements may see the succession crisis as an opportunity for democratization, but here we need to be reminded of a few ground rules in maximalist conflicts like people power vs. dictatorships. The first ground rule is that the death of a dictator is not the same thing as the death of dictatorship. Warring regime factions, at one moment at each other’s throats over who will inherit the throne, the next moment will unite in cracking down on a pro-democracy movement. Cracks within the regime need to be understood, but we also need to be reminded of the common interest these people have: to stay in power.
Opportunistic mobilization may look tempting, but it does not guarantee victory. What makes the movement succeed is its capacity to mobilize and the corresponding participation of citizens, not opportunities that can turn out to be elusive.
The second ground rule is that movements need to be careful not to be exploited by one of the factions fighting to take power. In a moment of intense power struggle among regime factions, a movement might decide to support one of the factions that seems better compared to the others. But this rarely pays off. After Lenin’s death, members of the Politburo Zinoviev and Kamenev supported Stalin against Trotsky, whom they perceived as more dangerous. But as soon as Stalin solidified his power with their help, he sent them to the gulag.
Rather than playing politics among hyenas, movements should make sure to build an independent political force through mobilization, a movement towards democratization, and a clear voice calling for freedom. Keeping that independence is more important than the temporary advantage one might get by aligning with one of the regime factions vying for power.
A final ground rule to be reminded of is that the moment of succession is transient, but the resulting power arrangement under the new leader can quickly become the new status quo. For a movement, it is better to prepare for a new reality when the dictator's successor takes the reigns of power. This is where the change we are looking for may in fact materialize. A recent study found that leaders who come to power as hand-picked successors or as a result of power-grabbing among elites don’t tend to stay in power long. That should be good news for movements preparing to challenge them.
All these reasons point us to the necessity to focus on building movement power through mobilization of supporters and the grassroots. This happens when activists put forward a clear vision and compelling demands. As a result, an independent political force will be created and will be able to challenge dictatorship—not just a dictator who is, after all, but a mortal human.
Ivan Marovic is Executive Director of ICNC. He was one of the leaders of Otpor, the student resistance movement that played an important role in the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. After the successful democratic transition in Serbia, Marovic began consulting with various prodemocracy groups worldwide and became one of the leading practitioners in the field of strategic nonviolent conflict.Read More