By Hakan Sönmez
Since the turn of the millennium, there has been a period of stabilization in the democratization process. But a group of powerful authoritarian states are challenging the democratic world. These regimes – i.e., Russia, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which I call the “Fantastic Four” – have the capacity to give form to a new international order. Although these authoritarian states have diverse interests, they agree on weakening the influence of democratic states, following the mantra of the Sicilian Mafia: Tutti colpevoli, nessun colpevole (“If everyone is guilty, no one is”). But despite this fact, their collaboration is limited. Their engagement is rather a self-serving project: it helps to preserve their geostrategic interests, as well as to prevent democracy at home in order to maximise the chances of authoritarian regime survival.
Although most forms of autocracies (dominant-party, military, and monarchic) have been declining since the 1980s, there is one type of autocracy steadily increasing in scope from year to year: the personalistic regime – the regime in which political engagement does not rely on institutions, but on one “Big Man.” A personalistic regime may face a bad fate even after a democratic transition because of the weakness of institutions. To give a historical example, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union did not consider the philosophical niceties about the political structure after Lenin’s death. Stalin was not really the pearl in the oyster, but he won the “game of thrones.” And on the other hand, no matter how much we see a decline in the other forms of autocracies, the most powerful of them – China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – remained authoritarian since the first day of measurements of democracy. The triggering question – which is quite important to today’s politics – is whether the Fantastic Four, which have less formal mechanisms for succession, can endure regime change in the future.
Russia experienced a change from an oligarchic kleptocracy in the Yeltsin era to an authoritarian recentralization of the state under Putin. Putin is most likely the least-constrained leader since Stalin. The main push behind current autocratic rule is the social degradation of the former Soviet Union and the fundamental rejection of Communism. It started only after the beginning of perestroika to show open support of nationalism (which is a quite divided ideology in Russia). Yeltsin saw that this ideological change was inevitable and cut the Gordian knot in order to put his money on Russian nationalism. In addition, a xenophobic attitude toward Caucasians, and migrantophobia in general, have fueled Russian nationalism.
The focus of “official” nationalism in Russia is always intertwined with Orthodox Christianity, where there is a deep-rooted idea of the need for a strong state and strong leadership to protect, perpetuate, and promote singularity. Nationalist and orthodox diplomacy has gained more ground to become a fundamental component of Russia’s soft power (e.g., cultural reformation in the media and creative sectors, financing internal, and external NGOs) and hard power (e.g., military engagement in the Donbass, and annexation of Crimea). The reunification of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, as well as the fissure between the Ukranian Orthodox Church and Patriarchate of Constantinople (because of the tomos of autocephaly, “property of being self-headed”) are other examples of the regime’s use of soft power. Although state and polity fundamentally changed, Russia remains a personalistic regime – a carryover from the Communist era. And no one – even the most venerable political scientist – knows how Putin’s succession is going to play out.
Dominant-party regimes, in which access and control of the policy depends on one party, are more immune from succession crises, as China has done flawlessly three times in the past thirty years. Xi’s leadership cult started similarly to Putin’s, but it goes even further. The new Chinese political doctrine, more formally called “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” is the guiding economic, social, cultural, political and military ideology of the country. But Xi’s vision on social and cultural affairs is highly contentious. The Chinese government scatters a model of advanced internet censorship and surveillance technologies to monitor and suppress minorities. The vandalization of CCTV cameras and other facial recognition systems by Hongkongers became very symbolic during the protests in 2019. The finesse of Xi’s doctrine seem not to be working properly. But according to Geddes’ regime lifetime study, dominant-party regimes are very stable with an average lifetime of twenty-three years. The terms of office of Chinese presidents are likewise stable; the average term in office of the last five Chinese leaders was 12.6 years. Xi has been in office since 2012. And, in 2018, the communist party approved the removal of the two-term limit on presidency (in analogy with the leaders in thirty-four countries that have tried to change the re-election period over the past thirteen years; they have succeeded in thirty-one of them). In other words, a way has been opened for Xi to be allowed to rule for many years to come.
Iran has oscillated from a monarchic regime to a theocratic regime. In fact, it is counted as a dominant-party regime in the Autocratic Regimes Data Set (which is hard to understand because the most influential body in the country is the Guardian Council of the Constitution, consisting of six theologians and six jurists, and not a dominant political party). In the transition period from 1951 to 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh tried to nationalize the Iranian oil industry, but was later overthrown by a joint operation of CIA, MI6, and the Iranian military. But the initiatives of Mosaddegh have borne fruit because Iran’s share in oil revenues has risen from 17.5 percent to 50 percent. After the coup d’état in 1953, Iran turned to a police state under Mohammad Reza Shah and his SAVAK (National Organization for Security and Intelligence), which was, after the revolution, considered the most hated and feared institution. Later on, Shah no longer had control over politics and made one mistake after another. The “green” revolution by Ruhollah Khomeini – who was appointed as ayatollah (the highest rank in Shiism) – was inevitable. In Paris, Khomeini won the trust of the Western world. Important figures such as Enver Hoxha and Michel Foucault, and different ideological groups, especially socialists, supported Khomeini’s project. Mehdi Bazargan became interim-president after Khomeini’s revolution, but Khomeini muzzled Bazargan and the opposition in consonance with his divine plan. As we know it from Jacques Mallet du Pan, “revolution is like Saturn, it devours its own children.” However, Iran still contains a great patrimony of political culture, and can anytime steer its wheel to another type of regime. Progress toward it might involve a new conflict, but it is quite obvious that the citizens are unhappy. Iran is ranked 150 out of 156 countries in the World Happiness Report when it comes to “negative affect” which comprises the average frequency of worry, sadness, and anger on the previous day.
Saudi Arabia is an example of a monarchic authoritarian regime, where political power rests with the dynasty. In theory, this type of regime has fewer issues with succession. In the 20th century, only one of the Saudi monarchs was deposed, whereas the other monarchs reigned until their deaths. But zooming into reality, in one way or another, powerful factions try to grasp power in the country. The reign of Saud (1953-64) was marked by sharing the political power with different members of the royal family, but when he tried to eliminate the other branches of the family and install his own clientelistic system, he was deposed by Prince Faysal and the Sudayri faction – who were supported by the ulamā (council of religious scholars). After becoming a king, Faysal was confronted with the fact that Sudayris wanted to monopolize the power, but the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait overturned this plan.
The Saudi succession problems might take a worse path in the future. The regime’s interventions in foreign affairs push it more toward deepening divisions at home. The inability to deal with perceived threats from Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon has led to massive violence with Houtis in Yemen (a political and armed movement which consists of both Yemeni Shiites and Sunnis). Azzam Tamimi even thinks that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), if ever crowned king, could be the last monarch of the dynasty, not because of Iranians or Qataris, but rather the Emiratis. His plan and intrigues against Houthis and Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Islah Party have backfired. Moreover, the conflict in Yemen is, on the one side, a huge lack of vision, and on the other, a gift from heaven for Iran, who has always aimed to expand across the region.
Beyond that, Saudi Arabia is propagating the Wahhābiyya daʿwa (an orthodox Sunni movement) all over the world, mainly funded by petroleum exports and hajj revenues. Alex Alexiev calls this phenomenon “the largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted.” Even though, as we see in the map below, only a small number of the Saudis belong to Wahhabism.
Source: Emmanuel Pène – Arab world maps
The house of Saud has always viewed the country as culturally uniform, and itself as the ruler of a religious-conservative society. But the attempts of national integration have always failed because regions, tribes and sects in Saudi Arabia have preserved their cultural diversity, which was above all unrecognized by the regime. Although there were limited attempts to religious pluralism and inclusive reforms, King Abdullah and his Wahhabi clerical partners set about organizing the domination of society.
In conclusion, the next regime change in the most powerful authoritarian states remains a thorny issue. However, we are not able to predict how their political successions will turn out. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it “the scandal of prediction,” because we predict all the time despite dismal ability to do so, almost always missing the big events. In reality, all important political events come unexpectedly.
Hakan Sönmez holds a master’s degree in political science from the Free University of Brussels. He continues his studies as an independent researcher. He frequently presents his insights and policy recommendations at international conferences of the UN and the OSCE. Follow him on Twitter: @snmzh.