Comparative Politics

Qaddafi is Dead. Does it Matter for Libya’s Future?

Oct 20 '11

The NY Times is reporting that Muammar Qaddafi is dead. While there will undoubtedly be many short term questions to answer (how was he killed? will this be the end of fighting in Libya?), it raises an interesting big picture theoretical question: does the death of the leader of a non-democratic regime increase the likelihood of a successful transition to democracy? Or, to lower the standard a bit, does the death of a leader of a non-democratic regime increase the chance of a country avoiding a prolonged armed insurgency or even a civil war in the future? I’m sure there must be academic research on this topic, and invite people with knowledge of this literature to contribute to the discussion in the comments section or, if you have conducted such research yourself, feel free to email me directly about a guest post. In the meantime, let me at least sketch out two sides of this argument.

On the “it matters a lot” side, one would have to expect that of all the people who could possibly unify opposition to a new regime – be it democratic or non-democratic – the ex-leader would have to be included in the discussion, if only for his or her ability to serve as a convenient focal point for opposition coordination. Thus we might expect that the death of Qaddafi, simply by virtue of creating uncertainty regarding around whom an opposition to Libya’s new regime should unify, should weaken the opposition compared to what it could have been. From a legal standpoint, I suppose that as long as a leader who had once been recognized internationally as the leader of a particular country is still alive and claiming that the new regime is illegitimate, it might be a way to give cover to other countries that for whatever reason do not want to recognize the new authorities in that country. We might also think that an outgoing leader may have built up a network of personal contacts over the years that could provide financial and military support to an opposition movement into which new opposition leaders might not have the possibility to tap.

On the “it probably doesn’t matter all that much” side, the elephant in the room is Iraq, where Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006, but where opposition to the regime hardly ceased following his capture and his death. More generally, one could argue that leaders ultimately are expendable, and that if opposition is strong enough (e.g., rooted in inter-ethnic conflict like Sunni vs. Shia in Iraq or sustained by huge economic incentives such as control of oil fields or diamond mines), then conflict can persist long beyond the life of any one individual. Indeed, one might even suppose that in some circumstances an old leader would become “damaged goods”, and replacing the leader could even increase the likelihood that an opposition can attract support.

Thoughts? Comments? Relevant research?