How much do individuals really matter in politics?

It seems more likely that Kim Jong-il’s death will have a greater immediate impact than that of Vaclav Havel.

The death of totalitarian leaders like Kim Jong-il can create fears of instability [EPA]

New York, NY – As the world digests the deaths of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong-il, an interesting and unresolved questions is raised once again 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 the system’s 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 by people with a strong sense of morality.

The most pressing question for policy makers now 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 assume) has been running the country.

However, perhaps the most important difference is the fact that the Czech Republic is an institutionalised 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. Furthermore, such an understanding is consistent with research on economic growth by economists Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken that has shown that the less constrained an autocrat, the larger the causal effect of the individual autocrat on growth in his or her country.

Nevertheless, it is possible of course to point to exceptions where the death a powerful autocrat passed with little discernible impact. One recent example is Turkmenistan, perhaps the world’s second most 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 characterised by continuity as opposed to change.

‘Minimum winning coalition’

Political science offers other interesting ways to think about the death of leaders. My colleagues Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith focus their research on the importance of the “minimum winning coalition” that politicians need to stay in power. This is the group of people that can remove a politician from office. In democracies, this includes voters, but in autocracies, it is made up of elites.

‘Patronal’ regimes… are often stable as long as the identity of the leader is not in doubt.

– Henry Hale, political scientist, George Washington University

One can easily imagine scenarios when the change from one dictator to another would change either the size of the minimum winning coalition, or the costs of satisfying the members of that coalition. If the either of these changed 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 “patronal” regimes (that is, those that run largely on patronage) are often stable as long as the identity of the leader is not in doubt. However, when circumstances change to create uncertainty about the leader’s long term prospects, 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, it is possible that a sudden death would quickly close the window on future uncertainty that drives the push towards instability.

All signs, therefore, point to the death of Kim as having a much greater immediate impact in political developments – and, perhaps even more crucially, security in North-East Asia – than the death of Havel will have on developments in Czech politics. 

In the long term, though, the North Koreans have lost another in a succession of dictators. The Czechs, on the other hand, have lost an inspirational leader who may very well go down in history as the most important figure in the establishment of modern Czech democracy. 

Again, we can ask the question of whether the Czech Republic would have been democratised without Havel (and the answer is almost assuredly yes), but fortunately we did not have to find out the answer. He will be missed.

Joshua A. Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University, a National Security Fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a co-author of the award winning politics and policy blog The Monkey Cage, where an earlier version of this article was posted

Follow him on Twitter: @j_a_tucker

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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