In the Shadows of Great Men: Retired Leaders and Informal Power Constraints in Autocracies
Posted: 26 May 2020 Last revised: 25 Aug 2022
Date Written: April 27, 2020
Leaders of autocratic regimes differ considerably in the degree to which they consolidate power, but what gives rise to these variations still remains under-theorized. This article studies how informal political constraints associated with retired former leaders shape intra-elite power dynamics. We argue that aging leaders’ efforts to manage the succession problem create an important, yet impermanent check on the power of subsequent leaders. To test this argument, we use the massive text corpus of Google Ngram to develop a new measure of power for a global sample of autocratic leaders and elites, and employ a research design that leverages within-incumbent variations in former leaders’ influence for identification. We show that incumbent leaders' ability to consolidate power becomes more limited when operating in an environment where influential former leaders are present. Further analyses suggest that the presence of former leaders is most effective in reducing incumbents’ ability to unilaterally appoint or remove high-level military and civilian personnel. These findings have implications for our understanding of the dynamics of power-sharing and institutional change in autocracies.
Keywords: power sharing, personalism, executive constraint, leadership succession, autocracy, Google Ngram
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