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Why do some dictatorships last longer?
Publication Date : 30-09-2013
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad. Together the al-Assad family reign stretches to 42 years. The Syrian political system is nominally a democratic republic. In the case of North Korea, its founder and head of the state, Kim Il-sung, has been succeeded by his son, and his son by his grandson over 62 years. But Syria and North Korea are neither the same kind of political system nor a traditional monarchy. A question arises: Why is this kind of power succession common in the non-West, while it does not exist in the West?
Based on the legitimacy of political systems, countries can be classified into Western democracy, pseudo-democracy, the communist one-party system, traditional monarchy (secular or religious), secularist military dictatorship and others. Western nations established the Western democratic political system between the late 18th and the early 19th centuries and have preserved it as the only legitimate political system to date. In Asia and Africa, and particularly the Arab world, some countries have preserved the traditional monarchy (particularly, Islamic), and others have opted for the secularist military dictatorship or have created a new form of political system.
Pseudo-democracy is a kind of janus-headed system ― disguising dictatorship with democracy. In Western democracy the peaceful transfer of power requires the following: regular and free elections; popular participation in elections and offices; freedom of speech and assembly; a multiparty system; and limited term of office. In contrast, pseudo-democracy has the following features: regular but not free elections; de jure or de facto one-party system; candidates for offices limited to only party members; restriction of freedom of speech and assembly; and unlimited or prolonged term of office. In Western democracy the succession mechanism is rarely changed, while in pseudo-democracy it can be changed frequently. As far as the transfer of power process is concerned, the communist one-party system is very similar to the pseudo-democratic system.
In practically all countries under non-Western political systems, the legitimacy question is becoming a serious political issue as globalization accelerates, Western democracy becomes more popular and their socioeconomic conditions deteriorate. In more concrete terms, most pseudo-democratic countries are characterised by poverty; wealth inequality; and racial, ethnic, religious, sectarian and regional heterogeneity.
The government’s corruption and mismanagement of these issues aggravate the situation. Under the circumstances, the people, particularly intellectuals, question the legitimacy of their political system as a whole and try to form rival political forces. This situation in turn makes the ruler or the ruling group more oppressive, thus creating a vicious circle. Even in such a situation, the regime in power may not collapse unless the ruling group itself splits into factions or some triggering events take place.
In the case of hereditary monarchies, the situation is basically the same except that most of them are wealthy and their foundation of legitimacy is still stronger than that of pseudo-democracies and secularist military dictatorships. Secularist military dictatorships are in a situation similar to pseudo-democracies in terms of legitimacy, socioeconomic conditions, and governance. One difference is that the former are wealthier and more secular than the latter. Egypt (under Hosni Mubarak), and Libya (under Gadhafi) fell and Syria under Basher al-Assad is on the verge of falling, mainly because the legitimacy of their rule was more seriously questioned and they mismanaged their respective triggering events. Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and Tunisia do not belong to any of the above categories. Iran can be seen as a new kind of political system, an Islamic fundamentalist pseudo-democracy. Egypt and Tunisia are now undergoing a serious legitimacy crisis.
One common aspect of all the non-Western democratic systems is that they suffer from legitimacy deficit. In the order of pseudo-democracy, secularist military dictatorship and hereditary monarchy, the legitimacy deficit is increasingly serious. The reason why secularist military dictatorships usually last longer than pseudo-democracies is that in the former the ruler is strongly protected by his fellow military cohorts and the first ruler usually enjoys charisma as the hero who overthrew a corrupt and tyrannical monarch or dictator. But as the ruler turns the regime into a permanent dictatorship, the legitimacy of the regime diminishes. For the growing popularity of Western democracy, contagion effect, intensification of religious and sectarian conflicts, hereditary kingdoms in the Arab world are also rapidly losing their legitimacy. In conclusion, among the three sources of legitimacy mentioned by Max Weber ― charisma, tradition and rationality (democracy) ― the first two are rejected even in the non-West.
In the non-Western democracies, peaceful transfer of power from the founder to the successor is very difficult, mainly because the founder usually enjoys charisma, but it is very difficult for the successor to inherit the aura of that charisma. As a means to deal with this difficulty, the founder of a new state or regime uses such methods as turning a non-hereditary political system into a hereditary or a collective decision-making system.
As far as the transfer of power process is concerned, the communist system is very similar to the pseudo-democratic system. In both systems the ruler is selected from the supreme ruling body of the ruling party or the ruling elite. One person may stay in power until his death or incapacitation, or the members of the supreme ruling body take turns. Sometimes, one of the offspring or siblings of the incumbent ruler takes over power. This method is more often used in pseudo-democracies. But the communist system has a much more stable and well-structured transfer of power mechanism than the pseudo-democratic system. It has a strong totalitarian ideology and a highly centralized one-party system.
North Korea is most vulnerable in this regard: All the above institutional mechanisms are weak and weakening despite the fact that its political machinery is more totalitarian than any other communist countries. In many ways, the North Korean political system is becoming a hybrid of a pseudo-democracy, a secularist military dictatorship and a hereditary monarchy. The recent revision of the Ten Principles for the Establishment of the Single Ideological Structure of the Party reflects the dilemma and predicaments of the North Korean political system. By strengthening the hereditary succession structure (called the Baekdu Bloodline), North Korea is becoming less and less legitimate.
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University. He is the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized Globe.” ― Ed.