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What Happens When a Dictator Dies?


A man walks past a mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez near his mausoleum in Caracas, March 5, 2015.

A man walks past a mural depicting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez near his mausoleum in Caracas, March 5, 2015.


A new study finds that the natural death of a dictator does not usually lead to a change in a county’s governmental system. In other words, remaining leaders are unlikely to put a democratic system into place.

Researchers at Michigan State University and the National Intelligence Council carried out the study, titled “When Dictators Die.” The magazine Journal of Democracy published it.

The study found that in most cases, system changes are more probable if a dictator is ousted.

The researchers examined almost 80 cases of dictators who died in office between 1946 and 2012. They note that 11 of the 55 dictators now in office are at least 70 years old. Some are not in good health.

Erica Frantz is an associate professor at Michigan State. She was one of the researchers.

“It started about the time of Kim Jong-il’s death in North Korea a few years ago. And there was a lot of buzz in the moments afterwards that we might see big change in North Korea. So we decided to dig around and look at the data and see what the empirical record showed because that’s not an atypical situation. The same type of thing happened also after Hugo Chávez’s death in Venezuela.”

Frantz says researchers wanted to know how and when media reports of possible governmental change came true.

She said they found that natural death in office was usually, in her words, “a non-event.” She said leadership changes in dictatorial systems usually come during “momentous” happenings, such as overthrows, elections or rebellions.

She says an examination of the leadership deaths between 1946 and 2012 shows there are several conditions that might make change more likely.

The more centralized the power, she says, the more likely change will happen. In other words, if there are few or no governmental structures to manage the continuation of the system, change is more probable.

Frantz says pressure, such as protests, on the ruling power in the months before a dictator’s death can also increase the likelihood.

The study also examined whether overthrows are more likely to take place when a ruler is old. Frantz says researchers did not find that to be the case.

She says there are lessons to be learned from the study. She says an old dictatorial leader is a sign of a skilled politician, who is able to stay in power for a long time.

“The other takeaway point, I think, is that leadership transitions more generally are moments that increase a country’s baseline risk of regime collapse. But death in office is really not the major moment that we can leverage those types of occurrences.”

Researchers say another reason there is little change after a dictatorial ruler dies in office is that top officials see no reason to change policies. Some countries have changed the constitution to permit them to extend their terms, sometimes by many years. Frantz says they use that method to give the appearance of democracy rather than using force to remain in power.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

VOA Correspondent Joe De Capua reported this story from Washington. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted it into VOA Special English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

buzz - n. excited talk about something​
atypical - adj. not typical : not usual or normal​
empirical - adj. based on testing or experience​
baseline - n. information that is used as a starting point by which to compare other information​
regime - n. a form of government​
leverage - v. to use (something valuable) to achieve a desired result

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