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The Targaryens struggle with a ‘crown prince problem,’ like all authoritarians

In House of the Dragon — as in the Game of Thrones — leadership succession is a bloody problem

Game of Thrones is back — at least in the form of a prequel, House of the Dragon. And there’s enough passion out there for that universe, despite a loathed final season, that last Sunday’s premiere crashed the HBO platform for some viewers. As with its predecessor, the plot focuses on who will take the Iron Throne — or as we put it in political science, the challenge of leadership succession. (Note: Spoilers ahead)

The pilot opened with two succession crises in a row. Ailing Westeros King Jaeherys, of the dragon-owning Targaryen family, lacks a son and therefore an obvious heir to the throne. When Jaeherys calls the Great Council to decide between candidates, it chooses his grandson Viserys Targaryen. The episode immediately shifts to years later, when King Viserys Targaryen is also having trouble producing a living male heir.

When King Targaryen dies, who will sit in the Iron Throne? How will power be transferred from one ruler to another?

The crown prince problem

All dictatorships face the fundamental and existential challenge of leadership succession, including the imaginary regimes of Westeros. The ruler knows it’s important to name a successor to prevent the chaos that could grow from members of the royal court jockeying for power, in anticipation of the eventual transition. But the heir can also be a power player himself — and a threat to the ruler. Worse, an heir has a direct interest in the ruler’s demise and might be tempted to hasten the succession. To political scientists, this is the classic “crown prince problem.”

The members of the elite — the powerful individuals just below the ruler — also have conflicting interests. On one hand, they might contest the succession, in order to put in their own claim or support a preferred candidate. On the other hand, they also prefer clarity and unambiguity about the succession in order to prevent the outbreak of a potentially disastrous conflict — like a civil war.

How should succession be arranged?

The House of the Dragon’s opening episode showcased four succession models: election, primogeniture, brother inheritance and by appointment. All these modes of succession have historical precedent; some are still used in modern-day dictatorships.

Dragon power is awesome. But it can’t tell you how to rule.

Our own research has explored the consequences of different ways of arranging the succession, in both historical and modern times. Each type of succession carries its own benefits and risks.

Election

The episode opens with this first type of succession arrangement, when ailing King Jaeherys asks the Great Council to vote for his successor. The council chooses Prince Viserys Targaryen, the king’s grandson, over Princess Rhaenys Velaryon, his older granddaughter.

Elections have an important advantage in that the elites who will have to abide by the arrangement get to select qualified candidates, although from a limited pool. King elections have historically meant a choice between different members of the royal family. The downside, however, is ambiguity, as no one can be sure prior to the election who will become ruler. The new ruler may also end up compromised upon taking the throne, as they must bribe the nobility to secure the election.

Primogeniture

The core of the episode focuses on King Viserys Targaryen’s plight: to have a son who can inherit the throne.

Primogeniture, in which the oldest son inherits the throne, became the dominant principle of succession among European monarchies. Primogeniture was often favored as an orderly, predictable and almost mechanical procedure: There’s no competition over succession, as the eldest son is guaranteed to be the heir, at least if he survives. Presumably, a son would be content waiting for his turn on the throne, since he could still look forward to a long reign after his father dies.

But primogeniture includes a few risks. First is the terrifying possibility of producing a brutal or utterly incompetent heir — like Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones. Second, the principle hinges on the king producing living sons. When that fails, crisis is all but inevitable — as illustrated over and over again in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon.

On ‘Game of Thrones,’ Daenerys Targaryen faces a sexist double bind — like so many female leaders

Brother inheritance

When King Targaryen’s newborn son dies within hours, the succession arrangement defaults to the king’s brother, Prince Daemon.

Brother inheritance — long practiced in modern-day Saudi Arabia, and historically in the Ottoman Empire — should also be predictable and orderly, at least in theory. In practice, however, it has often led to conflicts between brothers, and between uncles and nephews. Since brothers tend to be of similar age, they might not be content to wait for the ruler to die, the way a son would.

To make matters more dangerous, in this particular instance, Prince Daemon also has control over coercive power as the commander of the City Watch. Elites who control arms are particularly good at unseating rulers, the research shows, and authoritarian leaders generally fear their own military appointees.

Hand-picking a successor: The crown prince(ss)

The episode closes with a twist. Unsatisfied with all the existing succession arrangements, King Viserys banishes his brother, Prince Daemon, from King’s Landing and names his daughter and sole living child Princess Rhaenyra as his successor.

Hand-picking a successor — a method used most frequently in modern-day autocracies — avoids many thorny issues. The ruler can select a competent but unthreatening candidate who is unlikely to be able to overthrow him. Princess Raenyra would be the first woman to assume the Iron Throne, which means she lacks the independent power base (so far!) to depose him prematurely. A danger of this strategy is that the ruler can also deselect the successor — and thus give the appointee an incentive to preemptively stage a coup or otherwise hasten the ruler’s demise.

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Succession to the highest political leadership will always be fraught with difficulty. In fact, the way nations approach leadership succession largely defines their political system. Modern representative democracies have regular elections to encourage rotation in office; political science generally considers this a superior method for dealing with the succession problem. Perhaps Westeros should democratize, as Sam Tarly seemed to suggest in the much-maligned final episode of Game of Thrones. Of course, as we have seen in recent several years, no democracy is safe from threats against peaceful succession.

When power is on the line, the stakes will always be incredibly high — with or without dragons.

Andrej Kokkonen (@AndrejKokkonen) is an associate professor in political science at the University of Gothenburg and the author (with Jørgen Møller and Anders Sundell) of “The Politics of Succession: Forging Stable Monarchies in Europe, AD 1000-1800” (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Anne Meng (@annemeng_) is an associate professor in political science at the University of Virginia and the author of “Constraining Dictatorship: From Personalized Rule to Institutionalized Regimes” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

Jørgen Møller is a professor of political science at Aarhus University and author (with Andrej Kokkonen and Anders Sundell) of “The Politics of Succession: Forging Stable Monarchies in Europe, AD 1000-1800” and (with Jonathan Doucette) “The Catholic Church and European State Formation, AD 1000-1500” (both published by Oxford University Press, 2022).

Anders Sundell (@sundellviz) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Gothenburg and author of “The Politics of Succession” (Oxford University Press 2022).