Khomeini became leader because he provided a focal point for opposition to the shah's regime, and because the army did not stop the people from rising up against the monarchy. Once the shah was gone, Khomeini quickly asserted that it was he, not an interim government or a council representing all interests, who was in charge. Although the masses brought down the old regime in hopes of obtaining a more democratic government, Khomeini ensured that real power was retained by a small group of clerics. The parliament, while popularly elected, could only contain politicians who would support and be supported by the Council of Guardians.
There is nothing special or unique about Khomeini's success. That millions wanted the shah's regime overturned is unsurprising. The shah ran a brutal, oppressive government under which thousands disappeared. Imprisonment, torture, and death were commonplace. But that was equally true fourteen years earlier when Khomeini went into exile and the shah's government seemed invulnerable. The key to Khomeini's success at the end of the 1970s was that the army refused to stop the unhappy millions from taking to the streets. They had not allowed such protests before. What had changed? The army was no longer willing to fight to preserve the regime because they knew that the shah was dying. TheNew York Times
published accounts of the farce of a sick leader desperate to hide the progression of his cancer. A dead shah couldn't guarantee rewards. Neither could his successor. The incumbency advantage unraveled. Faced with the unpleasant task of suppressing the people with only a modest prospect of continuing to enjoy the lavish rewards of coalition membership, the army sat on its hands, smoothing the way for revolution.
The story of the rise of democracy in the Philippines is not much different. Benigno Aquino Jr. was an outstanding man. At the age of eighteen he was awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor for his journalism during the Korean War. He then negotiated the surrender of a rebel group. He was mayor of Concepcion by age twenty-two, governor
of Tarlac Province at twenty-nine, and a senator by thirty-four. In a dangerous move, he became an outspoken critic of President Ferdinand Marcos. In 1983, Benigno returned from exile in the United States. On the flight back to Manila he warned journalists that it might all be over in minutes. And it was. He was immediately taken from the plane and assassinated on the tarmac. He should have followed Khomeini's example and bided his time.
His wife, Corazon, did not have his political skills or experience, but she had one critical advantage: She was alive! In late 1985 Ferdinand Marcos announced snap elections a year earlier than scheduled. Corazon Aquino stepped in as her late husband's surrogate and ran as the main opposition candidate. There was widespread fraud at the elections on February 7, 1986, so it was of little surprise when just over a week later the electoral commission declared Marcos the winner. But Marcos's supporters swiftly deserted him. President Ronald Reagan expressed concern about the electoral result. Cardinal Jamie Sin, leader of the influential Philippines' Catholic Church, spoke out. At Corazon Aquino's urging, the people protested. Key members of the army and other leading political figures resigned from the government and joined the demonstrations. Without the army to stop them, hundreds of thousands of people joined the protest, resulting in still more military leaders defecting.
In an attempt to avoid bloodshed, Marcos and his family sought sanctuary in the United States. They left the Philippines and settled in Hawaii but, as insiders and many others knew, Marcos would not live long. That, in fact, had been his problem all along. He was dying of lupus and all his key backers knew it. He could not deliver goodies from beyond the grave so his supporters sought to ingratiate themselves with someone who might benefit them. Corazon Aquino had no experience in government. Yet she succeeded where her more accomplished husband had failed. She challenged Marcos at a time when his supporters knew his time was coming to an end. They were looking for a new partner to defend in exchange for their rewards. Corazon Aquino was inaugurated as president and voted
magazine's Woman of the Year for 1986.
These are not isolated examples. Laurent Kabila, once maligned by Che Guevara as lacking “revolutionary seriousness” and being “too
addicted to alcohol and women,” took on the mighty Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire and won.4
Kabila lacked much in talent, but his timing was excellent. Mobuto was dying of prostate cancer and everybody knew it. His military simply refused to fight back as Kabila's insurgents captured more and more territory. Mobutu's erstwhile backers knew that their own future would be brighter by abandoning their dying patron, a sentiment captured in the clichÃ©, “the King is dead, long live the King!”
Health concerns for North Korea's Kim Jong Il and Cuba's Fidel Castro have engendered similarly intense political speculation. Both have attempted to stave off defection by their essential coalition members by nominating heirs. Kim Jong Il promoted his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to a variety of posts, including the rank of four-star general, even though his son has no military experience. Fidel Castro likewise promoted his brother, Raul, to president when Fidel's survival was in doubt following major surgery. By designating heirs who might keep the existing winning coalition largely intact, these leaders sought to prevent the incumbency advantage from disappearing as their ability to deliver on political promises was brought into jeopardy.
Impending death often induces political death. The sad truth is that if you want to come to power in an autocracy you are better off stealing medical records than you are devising fixes for your nation's ills.Inheritance and the Problem of Relatives
We don't mean to say that healthy leaders don't face hazards of their own. If an incumbent runs out of money he cannot continue to pay his supporters. Why might he run out of money? Because he has taxed so heavily and stolen so much that the masses choose siestas over labor, stymieing the future flow of revenue into the government's treasury. Worse, the masses could choose revolution over siestas, emboldened by the realization that things will only get worse if they do not act now to overthrow their masters. Mismanagement of coalition dynamics and the incentives of revolutionary entrepreneurs can create
changes in institutions that topple the incumbent regime and bring new leaders to power.
Normally one of the most difficult tasks a challenger faces is removing the incumbent. But this is instantly achieved when a leader dies or, as in the case of William Tolbert, is murdered. Once an incumbent is dead, there is still the issue of fending off competitors for the dead leader's job. Ambitious challengers still need to grab control of the state apparatus, reward supporters, and eliminate rivals. To resolve this issue, the Ottomans, who ruled what is today's Turkey from 1299 until 1923, eventually instituted the law of fratricide.5
When the sultan died, the succession depended upon who could capture control of the state and reward his coalition. In practice this meant grabbing the treasury and paying off the army. Succession became a battle of survival of the fittest to see which son would become the next sultan. Each of the sultan's sons governed a province of his own. When the sultan died, the sons raced back to the capital, Constantinople, in an attempt to seize the treasury and pay the army for its loyalty. The result could often be civil war, as rival brothers each used their provincial forces to achieve sole, total control of the state. The sultan could have already shown favor to one son over others simply by giving him a province to govern that was closer to the capital, thereby favoring that son even from the grave.
Ottoman succession could be bloody. Unsuccessful brothers were typically killed. Mehmet II (1429â1481) institutionalized this practice with the fratricide law, under which all unsuccessful male heirs were strangled with a silk cord. A century later, Mehmet III allegedly killed nineteen brothers, two sons, and fifteen slaves who were pregnant by his own father, thereby eliminating all present and future potential rivals. By the middle of the seventeenth century this practice was replaced by the kinder, gentler practice of locking all male relatives in the Fourth Court of the Topkapi Palaceâquite literally the original Golden Cage. With relatives like this, it is perhaps no wonder why Shakespeare's Hamlet or Robert Graves's Claudius chose to feign madness.
The general dilemma of succession is hardly unique to the Ottomans. England's King Richard the Lionheart died in 1199. Since
Richard had no direct heirs, at least three people had a strong claim to the English throne following his death. Richard's father was the previous king, Henry II, meaning that succession could be claimed by Henry II's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, then nearing eighty years old; by Henry's eldest surviving son, John; or by Henry's eldestâbut deceasedâson Geoffrey's eldest surviving male child (himself but eleven years old), Arthur.
Eleanor was too pragmatic to put herself at risk for the crown, especially given her advanced years. She understood the likely consequences for her if she pushed her claim. Being the loving mother and grandmother that she surely must have been, she stepped aside, leaving John and Arthur to fight it out. Or, more precisely, she looked at who was likely to win and threw her support in that direction, allowing herself to change directions as the winds of fortune switched from time to time.
Would-be autocrats must be prepared to kill all comersâeven members of the immediate family. The Ottomans formalized this while the English merely relied on the tradition of doing in their rivals. Murder seems to be a favored solution under the extreme conditions of fear and insecurity that accompany monarchic and autocratic successions. What did John do? Even after assuming the crown he continued to fear Arthur's quest for power, a quest that grew more intense as the boy aged into his teenage years. Finally, in 1203, John had Arthur taken prisoner and murdered. Some rumors suggested that he killed his nephew personally. With Arthur out of the way, no one stood as a further threat to John's crownânot until the nobles rose up against him, promulgating Magna Carta, twelve years later.
Inheritance holds a number of advantages for leaders and their supporters alike. Paying off the right people is the essence of good governmentâand princes are well equipped to continue to reward supporters. They know where the money is and who to pay off. Even so, why should the court be so keen to go along with inheritance? After all, if the prince takes the top job, then the other courtiers cannot be king (or dictator or president) in his place. Supporting inheritance inevitably means giving up the chance to become king yourself. Yet, that is just one side of the calculation. With so many people who would like
to be king, the chance of landing the top job is tiny. In reality, supporters of the late king are often best off to elevate his son and hope that he then dances with the one that brought him to the ball.
New leaders need supporters to stay in power, and with inheritance those supporters are all already in place. The prince knows who they are and how to pay them. Of course, as we saw with France's Louis XIV, the prince might radically alter the coalition. But supporters of the old king correctly believe in the old adage, Like father like son. It's not a bad gamble for them. Essential supporters have a much greater chance of retaining their privileged position when power passes within a family, from father to son, from king to prince, than when power passes to an outsider. If you are a prince and you want to be king, then you should do nothing to dissuade your father's supporters of their chances of being important to you too. They will curry favor with you. You should let them. You will need them to secure a smooth transition. If you want them gone (and you may not), then banish them from court later. But the first time they need to know your true feelings for them is when you banish them from court, well after your investiture and not a minute before.
Naturally, if you're a young prince who hopes to be king, you'll have to make sure to outlive your “supporters” first. History has shown that regents are notoriously bad caregivers. Provided a regent is prepared to kill his charge, being entrusted with the care of the would-be future king is a great way to become king. England's King Richard III provides an example. When Edward IV died in 1483, the crown fell to his twelve-year-old son, Edward V. Richard III, King Edward IV's brother, was appointed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and charged with looking after the prince's interests. He was supposed to manage the crown for a few years and then hand it over. Like many leaders, however, Richard didn't relish the idea of giving up power.
As the trusted executor of his brother, King Edward IV's, wishes, Richard was able to manipulate events to his own benefit. First he had twelve-year-old Edward and his younger brother taken to the Tower of London. Richard then had Parliament declare both princes illegitimate by questioning the legitimacy of their parents' marriage. The
princes were never seen again. Richard may not have been much of an executor but he seems to have had no trouble with execution. (It is believed that two skeletons found under a staircase in 1674 belonged to the two young boys.)
Even in systems that rely on inheritance, the door can nevertheless be opened for a designated successor who is not a blood relative. Leaders often nominate their successor and sometimes choose from outside of their immediate relations, perhaps because they understand the dire risks to family if they turn to one member and not another. For instance, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, formally adopted his successor, Tiberius. Mob bosses often do the same. Carlo Gambino nominated “Big” Paul Castellano to succeed him as head of his New York mafia family. In each case, the designated successor was seen as someone likely to continue the programs and projects of the prior leader. Therefore, there wasn't much rush to replace the old leader. The new, designated successors might even enhance the old boss's reputation.