In the Shadows of Great Men: Retired Leaders and Informal Power Constraints in Autocracies

Posted: 26 May 2020 Last revised: 25 Aug 2022

See all articles by Junyan Jiang

Junyan Jiang

Columbia University

Tianyang Xi

National School of Development, Peking University

Haojun Xie

the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Date Written: April 27, 2020

Abstract

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

Suggested Citation

Jiang, Junyan and Xi, Tianyang and Xie, Haojun, In the Shadows of Great Men: Retired Leaders and Informal Power Constraints in Autocracies (April 27, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3586255 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3586255

Junyan Jiang (Contact Author)

Columbia University ( email )

7th Floor, International Affairs Bldg.
420 W. 118th Street
New York, NY 10027
United States

Tianyang Xi

National School of Development, Peking University ( email )

Beijing, 100871
China

Haojun Xie

the Chinese University of Hong Kong ( email )

Shatin, N.T.
Hong Kong
Hong Kong

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