Who’s Next? Does Longevity Equal Vulnerability?

24 Aug

Joshua Keating looks at the world’s longest-ruling dictators. From his post:

Barring a truly remarkable turn of events, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule appears to have come to an end. Having taken power 41 years and 357 days ago, Qaddafi had been the world’s longest-ruling sitting leader (not counting royals). He fell short of the all-time record of 49 years set by Fidel Castro, as well as those of Chiang Kai-shek (46 years) and Kim Il Sung (45 years.) So who takes the crown now?

According to Wikipedia, it’s Cameroonian President Paul Biya, at 36 years. However, that’s disputable since Biya was actually prime minister for the first seven of those years and only assumed the office of the presidency when the sitting president died in 1982.

Going down the list, there’s Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Western Sahara –which is not a generally recognized country — at 34 years. Then there’s Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh at 33 years, though his grip on power is tenuous to say the least.

That leaves Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as the world’s longest-serving undisputed ruler at 32 years and 21 days. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are close behind him, both at 31 years.

Given that Obiang and dos Santos are both 71 and Mugabe is 87, Castro’s all-time dictator longevity record appears to be pretty safe.

Some hypotheses worth testing someday:

1). As the leader’s health dwindles, movements may see new opportunities for mobilization. This was true in Iran when the Shah got some bad health news, and it seems true in Egypt and Yemen as well. Wild cards may include countries where succession is clear (like in Saudi Arabia or North Korea) versus countries where the next leader is contested (like in Zimbabwe).

2). The longer the leader’s tenure, the stronger the population’s grievances. I’m not sure whether this holds in Cuba, but it seems like people get more and more irritated with corrupt leaders the longer they are in power. Hence, the longer you rule, the more vulnerable you become.


7 Responses to “Who’s Next? Does Longevity Equal Vulnerability?”

  1. Xavier August 24, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    There is some research on leader longevity that suggests that long-lasting leaders are not more vulnerable than other leaders (on the contrary). Milan Svolik had a (rather technical in parts) paper in APSR on the topic (“here): most authoritarian leaders don’t last very long, but others do, and barring “exogenous” shocks (like, for instance, the events in the broader Arab world) they last forever. I discussed the paper a bit in connection with Qaddafi’s longevity in my blog. There is also other research on the length of say, emperor reigns in China that indicates that the distribution of tenure lengths is scale-free – which also suggests there is no special vulnerability to age.

    The second hypothesis – on grievances accumulating – sounds quite logical, but it may be swamped by fluctuations in economic growth etc. during a leader’s tenure. (So grievances are attenuated during a period of economic growth even if the leader has been in power for a long time, and amplified during economic contraction even if the leader has not).

    Great blog by the way. I assign your work on the effectiveness of non-violent resistance in my dictatorships and revolutions class.

    • rationalinsurgent August 24, 2011 at 3:19 pm #

      Xavier, many thanks for your comments and links. Super interested in the duration of authoritarian regimes right now (much like lots of people, I suspect!). These comments are really helpful.

  2. Tom Church August 27, 2011 at 8:38 pm #

    Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, George Downs, and Alastair Smith have done some work on durability of regimes. See Downs and BdM’s 2005 Foreign Affairs article: (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/61023/bruce-bueno-de-mesquita-and-george-w-downs/development-and-democracy)

    Also see BdM and Smith’s (excellent) forthcoming book The Dictator’s Handbook (http://www.amazon.com/Dictators-Handbook-Behavior-Almost-Politics/dp/161039044X). They write about their results finding regimes tend to be vulnerable at the very beginning and near the end when rulers are dying / sick.

  3. rationalinsurgent August 28, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Thanks so much for these sources, Tom.

  4. Melisa March 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    But if you handle your constituents properly and honestly concern for the welfare of the people you will gain respect of your people and not grievances.

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