Sunday’s election in Russia, a rigged affair that Vladimir Putin won handily, seems on its face a testament to the strength of his regime. Putin staged a simulacrum of democracy, handed himself another term in office, and faced little in the way of opposition throughout the whole process.
But this interpretation papers over a deeper and more fundamental flaw in Putin’s government. While Putin himself has a secure hold on power for the foreseeable future, he will eventually grow old and die. And the government he has created is so dependent on him that no one knows who — or what — will take over when he’s gone.
This is not merely a problem for Putin (age 65) and Russia. Strongmen in other major countries, like Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (63) and China’s Xi Jinping (64), aren’t young men. All of these leaders have created political systems that revolve around their own personal influence and support networks. But the problem with strongman rule is that the strongmen are not immortal, and once they fall ill or die, it’s not obvious who will replace them.
Ironically, the very means they have used to secure power for themselves in the short run have created a fundamental threat to their regimes in the long run.
This isn’t to say that the governments of Russia, China, or Egypt will necessarily collapse. Plenty of political systems led by strongmen who died in office, like Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, have successfully managed to hand over power to a chosen successor after their deaths.
But the best political science research we have suggests that transition in systems like this is always much less secure, and more likely to produce political instability or even violence, than democratic elections — or even other kinds of authoritarian systems, like hereditary monarchies.
If you look at the geopolitical events of the past several years, it’s easy to think that authoritarianism is ascendant. Domestic problems in leading democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom, the slide toward strongman rule in places like Turkey and Hungary, and the rising global assertiveness of Russia and China all suggest to some that the future may belong to authoritarians.
But that analysis assumes these authoritarian governments are actually as stable as they seem. And that’s not true.
The world’s strongmen may reign for years, perhaps decades — but their inevitable deaths will expose political systems built on rickety foundations. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the cracks will start to show. And when they do, the world will begin to see why rule-by-strongman is not, in the long run, an attractive model for running a country.
The potentially fatal flaw in the Putin regime
In March 2017, a scholar named Fiona Hill published a paper on “the question of succession” in modern Russia. At the time, Hill was working at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank; today she is in the White House, serving as the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia.
Hill’s paper begins with a stark warning: Putin’s push to centralize power has made the Russian political system remarkably vulnerable if he’s forced out of power or dies in office.
“The increased preponderance of power in the Kremlin has created greater risk for the Russian political system now than at any other juncture in recent history,” Hill writes. “Putin has the capacity to designate a successor ... but even this could prove a heavy lift for the system.”
Hill points to several features of the Russian political system that would make it tough for “the next Mr. Putin,” as she puts it, to emerge. The first is that Putin’s government depends heavily on personal loyalty. “The elites who have clout,” she writes, “have been recruited from a network of personal relationships spanning Putin’s youth in Soviet Leningrad and his entire career.”
There is no guarantee that those people could be counted on to remain loyal to any one successor rather than devolving into infighting over who gets to control what after Putin’s death. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, to take one historical example, triggered a violent factional dispute in the Soviet Communist Party — one that ended only when a particularly ruthless Soviet official named Josef Stalin managed to consolidate power.
A second flaw in Putin’s system, Hill suggests, is the way it celebrates the personal qualities of the man himself. Official Russian propaganda emphasizes his strength and manliness — see all of those famous shirtless photo ops — depicting him as a kind of father figure for the Russian state.
Putin has played up this cult of personality, doing things like taking phone calls from random Russian citizens on television to emphasize his personal role in solving people’s problems. If Putin is “incapacitated in some way,” Hill warns, “this changes the system’s operating context.”
A third issue — and perhaps the most fundamental — is that Putin hasn’t built up a strong political party to solidify his regime. United Russia, the leading Putin-aligned faction in Russia’s legislature, doesn’t have much in the way of actual governing responsibilities; it mostly rubber-stamps Putin’s decisions.
Real political parties, like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union, can handpick successors and help facilitate a smooth transfer of power. Without a strong party, Putin’s eventual death or retirement is significantly more likely to kick off factional infighting between Putin’s cronies and unrest among the greater Russian public.
“Most observers have no idea how [his] succession is going to play out. I don’t think Putin himself even knows what he’s going to do,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me.
There are ways to stave off this problem — and Putin shows no signs of ill health, which means he should have quite a few years left to work on this problem. But the issues that complicate his succession aren’t small things. They are fundamental problems that stem from the nature of the government he’s built.
In order to fix things, Putin would need to undo the very factors that make his government durable in the short term: his installation of loyal cronies throughout the government, his development of a cult of personality in the Russian press, and his decision to keep political parties weak to forestall challengers. Trying to cement his legacy would, somewhat ironically, jeopardize his own power.
It’s possible that Russia muddles through this, and that Putin’s allies settle on a consensus successor choice who can carry on the predecessor’s policies. But that’s not a guarantee, and there could be lots of instability on the way. It may take years, or even decades, but it could be very bloody once it comes.
“There’s a question I like to ask Russia specialists: ‘If Putin has a heart attack tomorrow, what happens?’ Nobody knows,” Milan Svolik, a Yale University expert on authoritarianism, told the New York Times.
It’s not just Russia: other large authoritarian countries have similar problems
Russia is not the only country with a political system like this. It actually fits a familiar archetype among political scientists called, somewhat clunkily, “personalist authoritarianism.”
In personalist systems, all power flows from the figure at the top. Leaders systematically weaken any other potential source of political power, maintaining their influence through repression and the dispensation of favors to a favored elite. The official state ideology tends to emphasize the personal strength and qualities of the autocrat, as opposed to some kind of broader ideological foundation. Everything centers on one man (and yes, historically, it’s almost always a man).
Not all authoritarian countries are personalist. Saudi Arabia, for example, is a hereditary monarchy; power is vested in the royal family as a unit rather than the king alone. And the Soviet Union was a one-party state, where the Communist Party — not a single person — shaped the system.
These types of regimes have fewer issues with succession than personalist ones. Kings have crown princes to take over when they die, and party leaders can vote on the next premier. But in a personalist regime, all power and legitimacy rests in the Big Man. Without him, it’s not obvious who gets to take over next, which means that the leader’s death is more likely to create a crisis.
Statistical research by Kendall-Taylor and Michigan State’s Erica Frantz shows that monarchies and one-party dictatorships tend to hold together even after an individual king or strongman dies. That’s not true for regimes like what Putin has created in Russia or what Xi is creating in China and Sisi is building in Egypt, which are far more brittle — and far likelier to collapse when the individual leader dies or is pushed out of power.
“The more concentrated that power is in the regime, the more likely that you’re going to see change in the wake of a leader’s death,” as Frantz put it to me in an interview.
This should raise alarm bells about the future stability of both Egypt and, more surprisingly, China.
Egypt is a kind of twist on the Russian system. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, like Putin, has turned himself into a kind of Big Man who rules based on dispensing favors to build loyalty and a sense that he, personally, is the nation’s savior.
Unlike Putin, he came from a military background and rose to power in a 2013 coup (which had significant public backing). This means that current and former military officers make up the hardest core of Sisi’s support inside the Egyptian government; his regime looks more like a military junta than Putin’s.
But the Egyptian military, as far as anyone can tell, does not have a plan for what happens when Sisi goes. He has managed to centralize so much power in his own person that no one seems like a possible replacement. The result is that his departure, through either death or incapacitating illness, could kick off an intra-military power struggle or even another popular uprising.
“The only thing anyone can say with some degree of certainty ... is that the next president will come from the military. The question is how that will happen,” Sahar Aziz, an Egypt expert at Rutgers University, told me. “It’s not going to happen through an election,” she added.
China would seem to be relatively immune from a succession crisis. Like the Soviet Union, China has a strong political party that’s ostensibly tasked with picking the country’s next leader. It has done so successfully three times in the past 30 years, handing power from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.
But Xi has decided to break the mold, working to marginalize his opponents inside the Communist Party and centralize power in his own figure. Chinese state propaganda has started celebrating Xi in a manner similar to the way Russian media celebrates Putin; “Xi Jinping Thought,” the leader’s personal ideology, was recently officially added to the Chinese constitution.
Most tellingly, Xi recently abolished term limits for the presidency, which most China watchers took as a sign that he is attempting to stay in power for life. This is a massive break with the past: The term limits were set up by Deng Xiaoping to ensure a regular and party-determined handover of power, giving institutions power over any one leader. Abolishing them is the biggest step yet toward a kind of Putinism with Chinese characteristics.
China is essentially a hybrid between a one-party state and a personalist regime — and strongly trending in the latter direction. The more Xi marginalizes the party and concentrates power in his own hands, the less stable the Chinese system will be when he leaves office.
“Xi’s moves surely extend his time in office, but they are likely to make that regime more fragile among his departure,” said Frantz. “As power becomes more concentrated in places that historically have strong parties ... the regime lasts less time than it would have otherwise.”
The bottom line is that the problem of succession is not just one for Vladimir Putin’s government. It’s one that afflicts the many personalist autocracies around the world, including powerful countries like Egypt and (increasingly) China.
And what makes the Russia-Egypt-China triumvirate so interesting is that their leaders are all around the same age. That means it’s at least theoretically possible that three large and extremely important countries will face major succession crises — conflict between regime elites or popular uprisings — around the same time.
It’s hard to overstate the significance such events could have for world politics. Yet that’s the reality we may see in the not-distant future. And it’s one that bears serious thought as we discuss another global political crisis — the alleged crisis of Western democracy.
Why the succession problem is good news for democracy
There’s been a series of examples in the past two decades or so of democracies sliding toward personalist autocracies.
In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, a democratically elected president, packed the country’s Supreme Court with his allies and locked up human rights activists; his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has ruled as a flat-out autocrat. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has amended the country’s constitution to grant himself sweeping powers and forcibly seized control of Zaman, a major newspaper that had been critical of his rule. And there are signs of this creeping authoritarianism in European countries like Hungary and Poland.
There is even a sense among major Western countries, in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, that democracy is becoming less attractive as a political model. A recent report from the National Endowment for Democracy, a US government institution, argues that Russia and China have attempted to weaken faith in democracy. In different and uncoordinated ways, the two countries are working to prop up their kind of authoritarian systems as more attractive alternatives.
“The decision makers in Beijing and Moscow clearly have the political will and the resources to build up and implement their influence efforts. By comparison, the United States and other leading democracies seem to have withdrawn from competition in the ideas sphere,” the report’s authors conclude. “The authoritarian initiatives themselves are truly global in scope, turning up in democratic countries on every continent.”
The general zeitgeist is one of a decadent democratic West and ascendant authoritarian East. But we risk assuming that things will remain this way at our peril.
If expert assessments and political science research on personalism tell us anything, it’s that the kind of authoritarian governments that seem on the rise now are brittle. They depend heavily on the whims and efficacy of one man, a man who — like all other men — will get sick and die.
Even short of that, these leaders have to play a delicate balancing act with their elites, courting allies who can prop them up without allowing for the emergence of a viable challenger. And they need to keep their populations at least complacent about authoritarian rule.
Democracy, by contrast, is built to survive more than one leader. The entire point of the system is to ensure changeover, to give the people a reason to believe in their governments and support them regardless of who is in power. In the long run, democracies are less prone to crisis and collapse than their authoritarian competitors — and that could end up making democracy the clearly more attractive model internationally once again.
The point, then, is that the sense of democratic crisis that permeates today’s politics may eventually prove ephemeral. It could be that we’re merely at an ebb in the democratic tide; that what’s coming in the next 20 years isn’t a further decline in democracy but a new crisis of authoritarianism.
So the next time you read something about Putin’s strength and ambitions, remember one vital fact: His days are numbered. And what he has is not built to last.