On Dynastic Succession
Paul G. Buchanan
In North Korea, the death of Kim Jung-il and the rapid ascent of his youngest son Kim Jung-un to national command
leadership highlight the problems of succession in dynastic regimes, particularly those of a non-monarchical stripe.
Monarchies have history and tradition to bank on when perpetuating their bloodlines in power. In authoritarian
monarchical variants such as absolute monarchies and kingdoms the exercise of political authority is complete and
direct, if not by Divine Right. In democratic variants such as constitutional monarchies royal power is circumscribed
and symbolic. There are also hybrid systems where royal privilege and power coexist and overlap with mass-based
electoral politics, making for what might be called "royalist" democracies (such as in Thailand or the sultanates in
Malaysia) In all versions royals are integral members of the national elite.
There are differences between authoritarian and democratic non-monarchical dynastic regimes, and they have to justify
themselves in ways other than on tradition. Democratic political dynasties such as the Gandhi's in India, Bhutto’s in
Pakistan, Kennedy's in the US or Papandreou's in Greece reproduce the family lineage within the context of political
parties inserted in competitive multi-party systems. Their power is exercised via party control and influence reinforced
along ideological lines and buttressed by inter-marriage with economic elites. They can come to dominate national
politics when in government and their access to national authority is preferential in any event, but they do not have
direct control of the state bureaucracy, courts or security apparatus. Dynastic political families in democratic regimes
wield their power in a way akin to the political influence of organized crime: discrete, dispersed and diffused rather
than immediate and direct.
Non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic regimes exercise direct control over the state apparatus, including the judiciary
and security agencies. They attempt to reproduce themselves politically via mass mobilizational parties, and tend to
divide into religious and secular variants. Religious variants fuse family bloodlines with clerical authority (say, in
the ordained status of fathers, uncles and sons) in pursuit of theological constructions of the proper society. Secular
variants mix nationalist and developmentalist rhetoric with charismatic leadership or cults of personality, often with
military trappings. In both sub-types of dynastic authoritarian regime the security apparatus is rewarded for its
loyalty to the ruling family with increases in size, budget and scope of authority (particularly with regard to internal
security). Personal ambitions of family members are often blurred with political objectives, often to the detriment of
the latter. There can be hybrids of the non-monarchical type that are religious or secular-dominant, where a controlling
dynastic family accommodates the interests of smaller dynasties (this occurs in clan-based societies).
The issue of succession is problematic for all authoritarian regimes but particularly those of non-monarchical dynastic
bent. The more institutionalized the non-monarchical authoritarian regime, the less dynastic it tends to be.
Institutionalization of the regime provides mechanisms for political reproduction beyond bloodlines. This most often
happens through the offices of a political party and a strong central state bureaucracy. Hence, the more personal
dynasties fuse family fortunes with institutionalized political reproduction, the better chances they have of holding on
to power. Even then, relatively institutionalized non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic rule such as the Assad regime
in Syria, Qaddafi regime in Libya, Hussein regime in Iraq, Somoza regime in Nicaragua, Duvalier regime in Haiti or
Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic have proven susceptible to overthrow when their rule proves too pernicious for
both national and international constituencies.
Monarchies can also be overthrown (such as that of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran), although that type of regime
change was more prevalent in the 19th century than it is in the 21st. Some modern monarchs have willingly accepted a
constitutional status stripped of political power, such as in Spain (after the aborted coup of 1981 known as the
"Tejerazo") and more recently in Bhutan (where the last Dragon King voluntarily relinquished absolute status as part of
the 2008 Constitutional reform). Other monarchies are under pressure to liberalize, such as in Tonga or (much less so)
Prospects for long-term non-monarchical dynastic succession have markedly decreased in modern times. Many
non-monarchical dynasties span two generations but few go no further than that. The transition to the grandchildren is
the big demarcation point between non-monarchical dynastic wannabes and the real thing.
The key to non-monarchical authoritarian dynastic succession is for the family bloc to embed itself within a
technocratic yet compliant non-family political, military and economic circle of influence peddlers, whom together form
a symbiotic relationship based on patronage networks in order to govern for mutual benefit. This makes the bloodline
dependent on the entourage, but dynastic stability is maintained. The more that they can justify their rule on
ideological grounds or in the efficient provision of pubic goods, the more they succeed in securing mass consent to
their rule. The Singaporean PAP regime exhibits such traits, although the passage of the Lee dynasty from its founding
father to its third generation is increasingly problematic. The Kim regime in North Korea is in reality a
military-bureaucratic regime with a dynastic core that has now moved into its third generation leadership (the next six
months should tell whether Jung-un will consolidate his position). Its vulnerability is its inability to deliver basic
necessities to a large portion of its people, which requires ideologically justified repression and social isolation in
order to maintain mass acquiescence to its rule.
Likewise, Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to promote a family lineage within the Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime proved to
be an internal catalyst for regime transformation in the face of rising popular unrest based on the gross economic
inequalities and relative deprivation associated with his name.
Dynastic authoritarian regimes suffer the same divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners that are common to
non-dynastic authoritarians such as the military-bureaucratic regimes of Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s or the
South Korean and Taiwanese regimes of the 1970s through the 1990s. These divisions on issues of policy and governance
are exacerbated when played out within family circles. For example, intrigues of succession and future policy direction
within the House of Saud are legendary, but the same can be said to be true about the current North Korean transition or
palace politics in Morocco, Kazakhstan or Kuwait.
The bottom line is that non-monarchical dynastic successions are hard to maintain over time, and increasingly rare. The
need for regime continuity is no longer as tied to family fortunes as it once was (even during the Cold War), and the
pressures on family-run polities are more myriad and complex than before. With the ongoing fall of dynastic regimes in
the Middle East amid the general decline of bloodline influence on political power in most of the integrated world
("integrated world" defined as politically independent and economically inter-dependent countries), what we may be
seeing in North Korea is the last of a political sub-species: the non-monarchical dynastic authoritarian regime. No
matter what happens to Kim Jung-un, we can be thankful for that.
Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst and commentator on international affairs. An earlier version appeared in www.kiwipolitico.com