Press Release Public Lecture: “The Politics of Leadership Succession: A Comparative Perspective across Democratic and Non-democratic Regimes”

Yogyakarta, 20 August 2019

On Tuesday 20th August 2019, ASEAN Studies Center UGM welcomed the new semester with a public lecture by Professor Ludger Helms from the University if Innsbruck, Austria. In this lecture, Professor Helms talked about his research on leadership succession, and compared leadership transitions between democratic and non-democratic governments. The public lecture was held in Universitas Gadjah Mada’s Faculty of Social and Political Sciences and was moderated by Robbaita Zahra, an intern at ASEAN Studies Center UGM.

The public lecture commenced by questioning the definition of leadership, what exactly constitutes as leadership, and what is specifically required from an individual or a group in order to be recognized as a leader. Professor Helms believed that leaders do not necessarily refer to the incumbent - anyone who is able to inspire and mobilize a group of people to perform actions could also be definitively considered as a leader, regardless of whether their intentions were 'good' or 'bad.'[1] 

Furthermore, Professor Helms also explained the difference between 'successions' and 'transitions' as these two terms are often used synonymously.  In democratic studies, ‘successions’ entail change in political leaders and/or parties, whereas ‘transitions’ mean something else. The difference between the two is best described as such: when a government experiences change in its dominant political party, it is considered a ‘succession’, but when the government only experiences mere reform, it is considered a ‘transition’.

Helms believed that successions are mainly found in non-democratic regimes. Evident authoritarian governments such as dictatorships mainly appoint its successor from close spheres of influence. With the case of monarchies, the king or queen may appoint its successor on familial merits. However, this is not exclusively exercised by non-democratic regimes. In democratic governments, a leader could also find its successor within dynastic families that often play a large role in the government’s authority - occupying parliamentary seats without public notice and driving the country’s policies from the shadows.  However, it is important to note that this is a rare occurrence.

The lecture also highlighted five differences between democratic and non-democratic leadership successions: institutionalization and openness of succession, the existence or absence of term limits, incumbency advantage and longevity, the ability of leaders to pick their own successors, and political dynasties.

One significant finding that Helm’s research brought was that non-democratic governments, that are usually ruled by such autocratic regimes, tend to have much longer ruling periods in comparison to more democratic regimes. The centralization in autocratic regimes also contributes to the adoption and maintenance of a single policy without opposition, which provides an incumbency advantage for the leader. Meanwhile, in democracies, such policies would more likely be safeguarded by the opposition coalition to ensure its execution, limiting the power of the incumbent to single-handedly choose their next successor.

Professor Helms ended the lecture by emphasizing the need to develop a more substantive academic understanding of leadership succession, especially how the study has not been developed as much as its other political science counterparts. He specifically refers to the need for better conceptualization and better data compilation so that the study of leadership succession could further contribute to the study of democracy implementation of various countries.

[1]Professor Helms expressed his dissatisfaction to his colleagues that argue that 'bad' leaders such as Hitler or Stalin, simply referring to them as 'power-wielder.' In his point of view, no matter how 'bad' they are, they can still be considered as a leader as they fulfill the prerequisites, requirements, and what it takes to be a leader.

Written by Daffa Syauqi, Robbaita Zahra, Fara Sheila. Edited by Nisrina H Khotimah. Research interns at the ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada