A picture taken on June 6, 2017 shows a poster of Saudi King Salman (C), former Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef (R) and new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
August 2, 2017 7:56 AM EDT

For democracies, the peaceful transition of power is the hallmark of stability. For autocracies, it’s a never-ending source of anxiety. Here’s a quick tour of some of the most interesting succession stories currently unfolding.

Saudi Arabia

Shocking absolutely no one, 31-year old Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is now Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and next in line to the throne. King Salman, MBS’ father, has held that throne for just 2.5 years, having succeeded his half-brother King Abdullah in January 2015. The day after Salman assumed power, he appointed his son defense minister, and the prince has since taken charge of the kingdom’s historically ambitious Vision2030 project to modernize the Saudi economy.

Some within the royal family had hoped that Mohammed bin Nayef, the crown prince that MBS replaced, might block the young man’s rise. Bin Nayef is believed to have been placed under house arrest now that the king has moved MBS into his place. Expect the 81-year-old King Salman to abdicate in favor of his son in the next few months, allowing the father to smooth his son’s transition. It’s a crucial moment as Saudi Arabia faces intensifying challenges. The kingdom is still involved in a war in Yemen that isn’t going well, and MBS’ snap decision to isolate Qatar and potentially unwind the Gulf Cooperation Council has still to play out. But the larger question is how the kingdom will adapt to a world in which oil prices are unlikely to recover the lost gains of the past three years for the foreseeable future.


Abdelaziz Bouteflika is credited with stabilizing his country and returning it to peace during and after Algeria’s decade-long conflict between the government and various Islamist rebel groups. The army first offered the presidency to Bouteflika in 1994 amid a civil war, but he turned it down over disagreements on military appointments. He would go on to win the presidency in 1999 with the backing of the military and would win re-election in 2004.

Then, Bouteflika began amending the country’s constitution to remove presidential term limits. He won another three elections, though he suffered a stroke in the run-up to his fourth contest in 2014. Succession is now front of mind, and not just for Algerians—Algeria is the world’s 8th largest gas exporter, and it’s ranked the third most important economy in the Middle East and North Africa by the World Bank. Bouteflika’s successor will most likely be chosen by regime insiders in cooperation with the military.


Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, was a Marxist revolutionary hero who made his name during Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1970s. Things went smoothly for Mugabe until 2000, when he moved to seize white-owned farms without compensation for the farmers, a response to the country’s colonial legacy. Many of his citizens applauded, even as the move triggered violence that drove away foreign investors and decimated Zimbabwe’s economy. By 2008, disastrous economic policies had pushed inflation to no less than 231 million percent. When he lost the first round of presidential elections in 2008, he responded with a brutal crackdown that left more than 100 dead and hundreds more beaten and imprisoned. He went on to win the second round.

Mugabe is now 93, and his country remains mired in economic misery. Nearly three quarters of Zimbabweans live in poverty. Even so, the world’s oldest head of state insists he is running for another term in next year’s presidential election. Last week his wife (and former secretary) Grace urged him to name a successor. Among the potential contenders are Defense Minister Sydney Sekeramayi, whom Mugabe has praised in public, and Mrs Mugabe herself. A faction within the ruling party led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as The Crocodile, could tip the race in his favor. None are expected to transform Zimbabwe.

South Africa

Mugabe isn’t the only African leader who might try to pass power to a spouse, though in South Africa it’s an ex-spouse who looks to be in line. This country reminds us that there are succession battles even in genuine democracies, though the African National Congress has been the dominant player within the ruling coalition since the end of apartheid. In this case, the succession battle is less to do with the death of a leader, than with his effort to keep himself out of jail after the next election.

Jacob Zuma has been South Africa’s president since 2009. As head of the ANC, whose national vote share dipped to 54 percent in 2016 after not falling below 60 percent in local or municipal elections since 1994, Zuma still has a strong political support base that has helped him remain in office despite 783 charges of corruption and racketeering against him.

Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former health minister, then foreign minister, and later head of the African Union Commission, is his preferred successor as leader of the ANC—though a significant faction of the party backs current deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa as leader. Either way, leadership of the country is not guaranteed. The ANC will face a broad coalition of increasingly credible challengers at the next national elections in 2019.


This fall, China will hold its 19th Party Congress to reshuffle the country’s top leadership positions. Five of the seven members of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee—the final arbiters of power in China—are expected to be replaced, with only President Xi Jinping and Premier Le Keqiang staying on. Traditionally, a leader nods toward a successor during the Party Congress that begins his second term, as Xi is about to do. We can strike one name from the list of candidates: Sun Zhengcai, party secretary for Chongqing, a city of 30 million, was once considered a serious contender. Last month, he was abruptly removed from power and placed under investigation for corruption.

Xi has spent the past five years amassing political power, elevating close allies from his vast network and shunting rivals aside. Some of this has come under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign—in 2015 alone, the Communist Party is believed to have punished about 300,000 party officials for corruption. Both the corruption and the campaign against it are real, but they have also provided Xi political cover ahead of the Party Congress to sideline political threats and place his preferred choices in positions of greater power. With the Party Congress likely to shape China’s political trajectory for the next five (and probably 15) years, we must watch closely to see who joins the Politburo Standing Committee—and whether Xi is ready to tap a like-minded and loyal ally as his successor, a leader who will take power in 2022.

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