'Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown'
October 4, 2007
Shakespeare had a term for it: "polished perturbation." He was referring to the problem of royal succession.
It continues to perturb modern leaders. Monarchies, with notable exceptions, have become symbolic satrapies; real power now lies with politicians. But the problem remains the same: how to keep it in the family?
Fathers and sons
Curiously, those leaders who come to office espousing ideologies of equality based on merit have been the most brazen nepotists. North Korea's Communist leader Kim Il-sung insisted on being worshipped like a king and on his death the crown was handed to his son, Kim Jong-il.
In the same way ex-communist Heydar Aliyev (he was a member of Mikhail Gorbachev's politburo) simply carried on as president of Azerbaijan when it emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union. A dozen years later, on his deathbed, he appointed his son as the candidate of the ruling party for president. Ilham Aliyev duly won and carries on the family tradition.
The Baath party began life as a secular, socialist party in Syria. Yet when president Hafez al-Assad died, after 30 brutal years in power, the presidency passed to his son Bashir. Bashir set out to be an eye doctor. In 2000 he became a modern-day monarch.
Down Argentine way
Then there is the Argentine way: husband-to-wife succession.
Juan Peron, the populist demagogue who had twice been the country's president before being forced into exile, returned to his country in 1973 and ran for president again with his third wife, Isabel, as his running mate. Peron dropped dead a year later. Isabel succeeded him.
The story doesn't end happily. She was unpopular and toppled in a military coup two years later. She remained under house arrest and then was forced into exile. In 2006 she was arrested again, this time in Spain, and charged in relation with forced disappearances during her presidency. Once again she's under house arrest, awaiting extradition to Argentina.
Argentina is doing it again. The president, Nestor Kirchner, a Peronist himself, didn't have to step aside; he chose to after just one term, despite high approval ratings. But he manoeuvred to ensure that his wife Cristina, an Argentine senator, would get the nomination. She is the odds-on favourite to win the presidential election on Oct. 28.
All in the family
In two of Asia's biggest nations the modern succession pattern has been father-to-daughter. Consider:
- India: Jawarhwal Nehru to daughter Indira Gandhi 19 months after his death (and then, when she was assassinated, to Indira's son Rajiv - all were prime ministers of India. Now Rajiv's widow, Sonia, controls the ruling Congress Party but has declined to become prime minister.)
- Pakistan: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto (she became the leader of the Pakistan People's Party after he was deposed as prime minister and then hanged. She was prime minister twice and is on the point of returning to Pakistan after years in exile to try for the job again.)
- Sri Lanka: truly a family compact. Father SWRD Bandaranaike was prime minister until his assassination in 1959. His wife Sirimavo took his place. For good measure Sirimavo's daughter Anura became the country's prime minister and then president in 1994 then naming her mother to succeed her as prime minister.
Putin's 'polished perturbation'
Then there is Russia. Successions there have long been fraught. Like monarchs, five of the seven leaders of the Soviet Union died in their beds. Only one left an obvious successor.
Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the bloody Soviet state, wrote a letter while he was dying warning his lieutenants about Josef Stalin. Stalin pocketed the letter, organized the state funeral for Lenin, and then took over the state. When Stalin died, his political lieutenants were so scared of his fellow Georgian and potential successor, secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, that they pulled pistols from their pockets at a politburo meeting, arrested Beria, rolled him in rug, smuggled him out of the Kremlin on the floor of a limousine, and had him shot a few months later.
Vladimir Putin has pondered these problems. The Russian president is barred by the constitution drawn up by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, from holding the presidency for more than two successive terms. Who will replace him? It has become a long-running political parlour game in Moscow, with Putin's studied silence increasing the suspense.
The Russian resolution
Now he has unveiled his solution: he will succeed himself. Not as president, that would be too easy. His party controls two-thirds of the seats in the Russian Duma; he could have easily changed the constitution. Many of his advisers thought he would do it, pleaded with him to do it.
Instead the president will run for parliament even while remaining president. He has announced he will head the list of United Russia, the party he created, in the parliamentary elections in December. Under the country's system of proportional representation, that assures him a key position in the lower house, the Duma. Then he plans to become prime minister.
"Heading the government is a realistic idea," Putin told his followers at the party congress. The only proviso was that a "decent, competent and effective person with whom I could work" would be elected as president in spring 2008.
Putin had already laid the groundwork by selecting a decent, competent, faceless and aging bureaucrat as his interim prime minister a couple of weeks earlier. This gentleman, Viktor Zubkov, is 66 but within days was talking of running for president himself. It seemed a little peculiar until Putin's move to make himself prime minister after stepping down as president. Power would simply drain from one office to another in the Kremlin.
Stalin as role model
Putin, the ex-KGB agent, is a careful student. One of his role models is Stalin. The Kremlin has even helped edit a new guide for Russian high school history teachers. In it they're instructed to teach that Stalin was an "effective" leader whose murderous purges in the 1930s, which killed millions, were a stimulus to Soviet elites and helped kick-start the country's industrialization.
Putin will have noted that Stalin never held high government office, either that of president or prime minister. His power resided in his position as general secretary and his control of the Communist party apparatus.
Putin has updated that approach, placing ex-KGB officers in key positions in the Kremlin, the ministries and the provinces. He is at the centre of that web of power, whether as president or eventually as prime minister.
The succession problem is solved. And four years on, he may move back into the president's office.
"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Shakespeare also wrote that. It may apply to others; it doesn't appear to apply to Vladimir Putin.