The Dictator’s Handbook #4: How to gain power and keep it

Whatever system a political aspiring leader finds himself in, in order to come to power he or she needs to do three things: the current leader must be removed, the government apparatus needs to be seized and the potential leader needs to form a coalition of supporters that can sustain him/her once in power.

In autocracies, or in a political sphere with few essentials, there are a number of ways in which a leader can be removed. The easiest would be for the incumbent to die. Short of that, a challenging politician can offer more attractive incentives to the incumbent’s coalition, enticing them to defect; and lastly, the current political leader could be overwhelmed from the outside either through military defeat, foreign power or through revolution and rebellion where the masses rise up.

Once the old leader is gone, it is essential that instruments of power are seized immediately, supporters paid and assured it will continue to be so in the future. The new must, if necessary, make institutional changes to secure the tenure.

Authors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith supply many examples in their book on how autocracies come to power. Although generally much less violent, leader transitions in democracies operate following more or less the same patterns.

The person you are when trying to come to power is very different from the person you are when in power

A political challenger or challenging party needs to remove the incumbent, take control of the instruments of the State and reward a coalition of supporters in order to secure their backing. However, these goals are achieved somewhat differently.

In some ways a democratic system makes things easier. For example, it is usually easier to detach supporters from a dominant political party because the democratic model requires a large number of supporters.

Leaders therefore end up having to rely on public goods to reward their backers, and public goods are there to benefit everyone so that, in reality, those within the coalition are not much better than those outside it.

A democratic challenger succeeds when he or she offers better rewards than the incumbent government. What this therefore boils down to is coming up with better or more popular public policies.

In most democracies the competition is cerebral and not physical (well, sometimes we move past that) because everyone consumes public policies whether they support the incumbent or not.

If a political leader chooses to clean up the environment, everyone wins; although the extent of the environment’s importance varies from one individual to another.

If a potential challenger comes up with a cheaper way to fix the environment or, better still, comes up with a policy that more people care about, then he or she can come to power.

Those advising the Labour Party in 2013 had clearly picked up on the collective sentiment at the time. The Maltese public had grown weary of the Nationalist administration that had been in power for some 25 years (excluding Labour’s two-year stint between 1996 and 1998).

Its ideas and policies were slow to come to fruition making the whole governing apparatus look like it was stagnating in self-doubt, whatever the cause.

Labour, fronted by Joseph Muscat, went on to issue a fresh, vibrant, sleek and (seemingly) clear electoral programme with bullet points that outlined the innovative ideas that the tired Maltese public so desperately thought they needed. Even from a stylistic or cosmetic point of view, it was better looking.

But let’s take a quick look at a handful of the ideas that helped bring to power the Malta Labour Party in 2013 – where do these “good” ideas stand now that they’ve been in power for five years?

Things they told us they’d do, but didn’t didn’t quite say how:

  • They said they would introduce a more efficient planning system by the demerger (split) of the Malta Environment and Planning Authoity (MEPA). We now know that not only has the whole system been weakened in the face of determined and ruthless speculators with government backing, but the Planning Authority has been reduced to rubber stamping the government’s will. The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) created cannot meaningfully compete.
  • They promised they would make Enemalta financially viable again – what they didn’t tell us was that in order to do so, 33% of it would be sold to the Chinese Shanghai Electric.
  • There was certainly no mention of an 18 year fixed rate energy contract with Azerbaijan. And there was certainly no mention of us having to pay twice the market price for it.
  • They promised investment in gas fired technology but made no mention that it would come in the form of a tanker moored just outside Marsaxlokk bay for an indefinite period of time.

Things they told us they would do, but didn’t do:

  • They told us they would guarantee cleaner air quality (please don’t laugh) – instead not only did Malta see an 80,000 car increase since 2010 but in 2017 also registered the highest increase in CO2 emissions of any EU State.
  • There is also a beautiful lengthy page dedicated to “a just society” in Labour’s 2013 electoral programme, but it’s no secret that at this point the current administration is cherry picking what and who deserves justice and what and who does not.

Things they never told us they would do, let alone how:

  • Noticeably absent from the electoral programme is the IIP citizenship programme (cash for passports scheme).
  • The Maltese electorate was also certainly not aware that prime areas of already limited land (ODZ) would be offered up to dubious businesses such as the Sadeen’s so-called American so-called University.
  • How about the various land deals? Did Maltese voters expect any of the following: Cafè Premier, Australia Hall, Gaffarena’s Old Mint Street, the DB Group project?
  • What about Blockchain Island? Join the club of those who still can’t wrap their head around what cryptocurrency means.

As the UK Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk said when asked whether the election of Barack Obama in 2009 would have an impact on the Middle East: “The person you are when trying to come to power is very different from the person you are when in power”.

There is no denying that the sneering Prime Minister we are so used to now is very different from the charming, fresh-faced politician who promised a “Malta for all”.

The arms race for good ideas was won by the Labour Party in 2013 but as the examples above show us, that was the easy part. Hanging on to power is another matter altogether and there are inconveniences – such as meritocracy – that must be dispensed with order to maintain that power. More about that next week.

Read more in the series: The Dictator’s Handbook

Source: The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics by Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.


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