Special Report: Top 10 Political Succession Risks

BMI Research has just published a special report, Top 10 Political Succession Risks, outlining major political leadership successions which we expect to play out over the coming decade. In each case, an autocratic leader or revered head of state who has been in office for decades is likely to depart the political scene, leading to considerable uncertainty over their successor, and whether that individual can consolidate their power and preserve stability. In many cases, the death of the long-serving leader will portend dramatic upheaval.

Below, we are publishing an abridged version of the introduction to the report:

One of the biggest threats to stability in more than 20 countries around the world is the issue of who will succeed ageing leaders who have been in power for decades and who have no clear frameworks for the transfer of power. The more concentrated that power is in one person, the greater the risk of instability once that person retires or dies, since the new leader may lack the personal authority, experience, and political skills to control the country after the incumbent's departure. Examples of strongmen whose exit caused their countries to experience civil war or severe violence include Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Mobutu Sésé Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Suharto of Indonesia, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Muammar Qadhafi of Libya.

The above examples are all somewhat extreme, but they serve as very real warnings of what could happen when autocratic leaders exit the scene.

Our Selection Of Countries

For this report, we have selected 10 succession risks, namely Angola, Cameroon, Cuba, Iran, Kazakhstan, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Zimbabwe. We chose these countries to incorporate a variety of regions across the world, and because most of them have geopolitical or economic importance (for example major oil and gas reserves), or considerable potential for long-term economic transformation, meaning that they are of relevance for international businesses and investors. We included Russia in the list, because although President Vladimir Putin is relatively young at 62, he too will need to consider his successor, as he is constitutionally obliged to step down by 2024.

Overall, many autocratic or authoritarian countries share common characteristics with one another, meaning that this special report can provide insight into other states beyond the 10 we outline.

This special report largely consists of our long-term political outlooks for the selected countries, and in some cases, additional articles addressing the succession question more specifically. BMI produces long-term political outlooks for more than 120 countries, in which we identify the main challenges and threats to stability and governance, and outline three or four broad scenarios for how the country could evolve over a 10-year period.

How Are Leaders Preparing For Their Successions?

To minimise the risk of unstable successions, and preserve their political legacies, several long-time leaders have reportedly been grooming their sons or other family members, or trusted allies to take over. However, in some countries, it appears that the president has taken very few or no visible steps to prepare a successor, meaning that there is a high risk of a bumpy transition. Meanwhile, the notion of dynastic succession is at odds with constitutional republicanism, meaning that the legitimacy of the succession may be questioned. In addition, even if there is broad support among the elites and public for a hereditary handover, a son, daughter, or close political ally of a strongman may simply lack their predecessor's leadership abilities, meaning that a more capable challenger could emerge at a later date.

However, given the interconnectedness of elites, any challenger would need to be extremely careful lest their power grab unintentionally destabilises the entire regime. The successor would have to provide assurances to vested interest groups that their privileged positions would not be jeopardised. This may also include granting immunity from prosecution to the former president (if he is still alive) and his family. Such promises reduce the scope for sudden policy changes, although they would not preclude reforms at a later date, once a successor has consolidated his or her power.

In several countries, we expect to see individuals with close connections with or strong support from the military or security services to assume power, since these are usually the most effective organisations in their countries. Yet even if authoritarian leaders are replaced by new strongmen, this would not preclude eventual democratisation, albeit after a period in which stabilisation is the priority. Unsurprisingly, countries with the least experience of democracy could quickly return to authoritarian rule, especially if democratisation comes to be associated with chaos, as appears to have been the case following the 'Arab Spring' of 2011.

Russia's Succession To Determine The Fate Of Eurasia

Perhaps the most important, yet probably most distant, looming succession is that of Vladimir Putin, who has led Russia since 1999. Putin has been credited with restoring the country's stability and geopolitical clout after the post-Soviet chaos and reversals of the 1990s, but since the late 2000s he has taken Russia in an increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western trajectory. The Kremlin's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and subsequent support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have raised fears of a new 'Cold War' in Europe. Putin has remained extraordinarily popular despite a severe economic crisis brought about by Western sanctions and lower oil prices, but that does not mean he is politically invincible. While a popular uprising seems extremely unlikely, we see a considerable risk that Putin will eventually be ousted in a 'palace coup', as has often been the case in Kremlin politics. Given that Russia has generally alternated between periods of conservatism and relative liberalism following a change of leadership, it is quite possible that the next president will be more liberal or reformist. However, he or she would most likely maintain Russia's assertive foreign policy, given that Moscow has been pushed to the limits of what it will accept, geopolitically, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Central Asian states will also be experiencing succession battles. The long-serving presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have refrained from naming successors, yet political jockeying is already in motion. Although Turkmenistan has remained stable following the sudden death of autocratic President Saparmurat Niyazov in 2006, it has a smaller and more concentrated population than the other states, meaning that it may not have set a precedent for stability. Over the coming decade, investors will be watching closely for signs of unstable transitions in a region that has vast hydrocarbon resources, but also faces the threat of Islamist militancy from Afghanistan, and is caught up in a wider geopolitical struggle between Russia, China, and the West.

Middle East Faces Saudi, Iran, And Oman Successions

The transitions in Saudi Arabia and Iran will be among the most important, globally. They are the most geopolitically assertive states in the Middle East and key determinants of the future of political Islam. Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as the leader of the Sunni Arab bloc, while Iran is the undisputed leader of the Shi'a Islam realm. It is clear that the Middle East is becoming increasingly polarised between Sunnis and Shi'as, with the sectarian struggle already playing out in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. The next generation of Saudi leaders will determine whether the country liberalises or continues to adhere to its ultra-conservative Wahhabi version of Islam. Similarly, Iran's next Supreme Leader will determine if the country liberalises or retains its radical Islamist character. The Omani succession is also of tremendous importance, as Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has been a key interlocutor between Iran and its rivals and has helped maintain a balance of power.

The Dangers Of Linear Thinking

In any long-term forecasting exercise, there is a temptation to assume that the status quo will endure, and that the regime will somehow muddle through various crises. This 'linearist' view is not entirely unreasonable. Many autocratic or authoritarian regimes have survived leadership transitions, most notably North Korea, which successfully transferred power from the five-decade rule of Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il in 1994, and again to Kim Jong Un in 2011 (although the latter's rule is showing signs of a severe power struggle). There have also been smooth transitions in Azerbaijan in 2003 and Turkmenistan in 2006, and other countries, especially monarchies.

Nonetheless, readers of our special report need to recognise the risks of dramatic political change, which is why we have identified alternative scenarios to smooth succession. A weak successor could pave the way for a destabilising power struggle, leading to policy confusion, and a possible coup or uprising. Popular uprisings do not guarantee the establishment of a democracy, as the subsequent chaos may trigger a takeover by the military and the restoration of authoritarian rule, at least until the country is perceived to be 'ready' for democracy. In a worst-case scenario, the country could descend into civil war. Therefore, the transfer of power from one leader to another must be regarded as the beginning of the change, rather than the change itself, with the process of political liberalisation likely to last 10 years, or even longer.