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Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel: How Much do Individuals Matter in Politics?

- December 19, 2011

As the world digests the deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-Il, an interesting and unresolved questions is raised for observers of politics: how much influence does any one person ever really have over the evolution of politics in a country, a region, or even the whole global political systems?

From our earliest days in school, most of us are taught history as a story of individual contributions by the great men and women of the past. The American War of Independence? George Washington. The evils of WWII? Adolf Hitler. In contrast studies of political science often focus on institutional factors. We ask whether the global system is bi-polar or multi-polar, not whether its great powers are led by visionaries or megalomaniacs. We look at prospects for social-welfare reform in terms of whether a country employs majoritarian or proportional electoral rules, not over whether countries are led people with a strong sense of morality.

It seems to me – especially at a time like this – that one question we might want to know the answer to is how likely it is that the course of Czech or North Korean politics will be altered by the death of Havel or Kim. Many important differences exist between the two, not the least of which is that Havel has been out of political power for years now, while Kim (we think) has been running the country. However, perhaps the most important difference is the fact that the Czech Republic is an institutionalized democracy while North Korea may be the world’s last totalitarian dictatorship. Therefore, one viable hypothesis would seem to be that there should be less disruption to the Czech Republic’s political trajectory (or any established democracy) due to the death of an important political figure than in a case like North Korea, where power is so centrally wrapped up around one person. And indeed, early reports out of both countries reflect this way of thinking: we are not finding many news stories right now about fears of instability in the heart of Europe due to Havel’s death.

Nevertheless, it is possible of course to point to exceptions. The one that seems most relevant to me is the case of Turkmenistan, perhaps the world’s other remaining totalitarian state. Here, we also saw the death of a supreme leader — and one who had established a significant cult of personality at that — five years ago, and yet the secession process to choosing a new leader proved remarkably non-disruptive. In the ensuing years Turkmenistan has stated to open up a tiny bit, but for the most part the country has been characterized by continuity as opposed to change.

Political science offers other interesting ways to think about the death of leaders. My colleagues Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith focus on the importance of the “minimum winning coalition” that politicians need to stay in power. One can easily imagine that the change from one dictator to another would change the size of the minimum winning coalition. If the size of that coalition grew by too much, then we might have one pathway from the death of a leader to political instability in that country.

Henry Hale, a political scientist at George Washington University, has argued that “patrimonal” regimes (that is, those that run largely on patronage) are often stable as long as the identity of the leader is not in doubt; when circumstances change to create uncertainty about the leader’s long term prospects, then we can see the emergence of instability. Hale points to both term limits and deterioration in the health of leaders as developments that can trigger this instability. It is an interesting question to ask whether the sudden death of a leader would result in more or less pressure towards instability from this perspective. On the one hand, death would seem to be the ultimate extension of an illness that can remove a leader from the political scene. On the other hand, it is possible that a sudden death would quickly close the window on future uncertainty that drives the push towards instability.

Having offered these few thoughts, I am quite interested in what others have to add. Do we have good theories about the deaths of leaders and their impact on subsequent political developments in those countries? If so, what variables have been found to be important predictors of these effects? Am I correct that democracy vs. non-democracy is an important distinction, or are there other variables that I have missed in this discussion?

As a final note, let me just add my own condolences on the death of Vaclav Havel. I have long looked to him as an inspirational figure, and I have shared his achievements with many, many of my students over the years through Timothy Garton Ash’s wonderful The Magic Lantern. He will be missed.