Seizing Power: Not What It Used To Be

| Mon Aug. 22, 2011 5:18 PM EDT

There are tyrants who got their position by inheritance, there are tyrants who got their position by election, and then there are tyrants who got their position by seizing power. With the apparent demise of Muammar Qaddafi, John Quiggin notes that there are damn few of the third kind left:

Now, there’s Mugabe clinging to a share of power in Zimbabwe, a couple of shaky-looking strongmen in the ‘stans, and that’s about it for tyrants in the classical sense (feel free to point out cases I’ve overlooked). There’s Kim jr, Assad jr and Castro minor, the first two of whom are certainly tyrannical in the ordinary modern sense, but all of whom inherited their positions, as of course, did the remaining absolute monarchs. More surprising to me are the number of cases where classic tyrants, having established one-party states, have been succeeded by self-selecting oligarchies — China is the most striking example. Looking at the evidence of the past, I would have predicted that such oligarchies would either collapse in short order or see the emergence of a new tyrant, but there is no sign of that for the moment.

I don’t have a good theory to explain the rise of so many tyrants in the modern period, beginning with Bonaparte (or maybe Cromwell), or the sudden disappearance of this form of government from around the mid-1960s. But it seems that it’s a development worth noting.

Is this true? In comments, Doug M proposes a whole slew of additional tyrants who have seized power and kept it. By country: four out of five of the stans, Cambodia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Uganda, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Sudan, both Congos, Rwanda, Djibouti, Algeria, Belarus, Fiji, and Burma. "A lot fewer than 40 years ago," he says, "but too many to claim that this form of government is 'disappearing.'"

I can't referee this, but thought I'd throw it out for comment. It's an interesting conjecture and an interesting rebuttal. Even if John miscounted in his original post, you can still say that (a) there are many fewer tyrannies that originated in a seizure of power than there used to be, and (b) outside of Africa there are way fewer. But why?

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