Xi’s power grab in China is a big deal

Regularized and predictable change of leadership is perhaps the most important indicator of political development. It doesn’t matter if such changes occur through popular elections (as in electoral democracies), boardroom meetings (in party dictatorships), or through inheritance (as in monarchies). Predictability provides stability and allows for the cultivation of elite consensus over a system of rule. It also provides the background conditions necessary for the rule of law to emerge. A situation in which rules change with rulers is hostile to constitutionalism.

jinpingThis is precisely why life presidencies are sub-optimal. Long tenures eventually convince even the most democratic of leaders that they are above the law. They freeze specific groups of elites out of power. And remove incentives for those in power to be accountable and to innovate.

For a while China seemed to have turned this corner, having imposed term limits on its state presidents. But President Xi Jinping has thrown that consensus out the window with the announcement that he plans to scrap term limits and presumably stay on as president indefinitely. 

This is a big deal. Xi has revealed to us that he is no different than Yoweri Museveni.

Who would have guessed that in the 21st century we would be back to a situation in which the world’s biggest economy has life presidents, and occasionally goes through unpredictable transfers of power? Certainly, the coup risk in China is likely to go up under a life presidency. And the demonstration effect to other autocracies will be huge. Remember that even Vladimir Putin had to engage in questionable institutional jujitsu by allowing his wingman to be president in order not to flout the Russian constitution.

global_tenuremean.pngXi’s China is a reminder of that political development is not uni-directional. It is also a caution against trust that elites’ material interests are a bulwark against would-be personalist dictators. China’s economy is booming (albeit at a slower rate of growth), and continues to mint dollar billionaires. Yet the country’s political and economic elites appear helpless in the face of a single man who is bent on amassing unchecked power (the same happens in democracies with “strong western institutions”, too).

Globally, the annual average of the number of years in office for heads of governments has been on decline since the mid-1980s (see graph). Perhaps we were due for a correction, like happened in the mid-1920s. May be this time we will be lucky enough to avoid the messes that followed in the subsequent two decades (the fact that China appears to be a revisionist world power is not a great sign).

Finally, it is remarkable that even after being around for thousands of years China hasn’t figured a system of stable, regularized transfer of power that lasts for centuries. May be it is the curse of being a big country. Or may be this is just how politics works. It really does put in perspective the achievements of a number of African countries that appear to have consolidated term limits within a few decades of existence.

On the failure of constitutional engineering in Burundi

Burundi’s post-conflict constitution provides a robust array of formal checks to personal rule. Article 164 mandates a 60-40 Hutu-Tutsi split in National Assembly and 50-50 split in the Senate in order to ensure that the majority Hutu (85%) do not violate the rights of the minority Tutsi (14%). The Batwa (1%) are also guaranteed representation in Parliament through special nomination. Burundi also has a proportional representation (PR) system with a closed list that requires political parties to nominate no more than two thirds of candidates from the same ethnic group. Article 257 of the constitution reinforces the principle of ethnic balance by mandating a 50-50 split in the military. Furthermore, according to Article 300 any amendment to the constitution requires an 80% super-majority in the National Assembly and two thirds of the Senate (this is why Nkurunziza failed in an attempt to amend the constitution in early 2014).

So how did Nkurunziza manage to overcome all these formal institutional checks on his power and engineer a technical third term in office? For answers see here.

Hint: elite consensus on acceptable bounds of political behavior matters a great deal. Looking back, the framers of the Burundian constitution probably should have focused on intra-Hutu balance of power as much as they did on the Hutu-Tutsi balance. Nkurunziza succeeded because not enough Hutu elites (within his own divided party) were willing to punish his blatant contravention of term limits on a questionable technicality. Perhaps they will stand up to him if he tries again in 2020.

A total of 19 incumbent African leaders have now lost elections

And as my adviser likes to remind me, the trend was started by Somalia in 1967.

Source: Mail & Guardian

Source: Mail & Guardian

More on this here.

H/T Onyango-Obbo.

Looks like succession planning in private companies is just as bad as in non-democracies

I was fascinated by this piece in the Times about the impending retirement of Steven Ballmer as the chief executive of Microsoft. The piece notes that:

Succession planning is a delicate issue for many companies, particularly one like Microsoft, where Mr. Ballmer has been a senior employee since 1980 and chief executive since 2000, and his longtime friend, Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, remains chairman.

“Particularly for a person like Ballmer, who really is one of the founders, leaving is almost like death, so it’s extremely difficult to have an orderly process,” said Joseph L. Bower, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “It requires a very grown-up relationship between the chief executive and his board.”

Microsoft is certainly no dictatorship but does this remind you of the delicate question of when a certain founding president in southern Africa will retire?

The most interesting paragraph notes that: 

Developing a succession plan is one of a board’s chief responsibilities, but only half of companies actively groom executives, according to a 2010 study by Stanford University’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance and Heidrick & Struggles, the executive search firm that is leading Microsoft’s search. Boards spend only an average two hours a year on succession planning, the study found.

One of the lessons here is that absent term limits, no one really wants to openly plan for succession (It’s obviously destabilizing, and worse, might result in internal splits and conflict). And the longer the incumbent stays, the harder it becomes to remove her; for those around them actually become invested in maintaining the status quo.

So in the end, the timing of a transition becomes not just the prerogative of the incumbent, but also of those around her – which results in the boards of private companies behaving more or less in the same way as Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s praise-singers in the military and ZANU-PF establishment.