The succession of governments is one of the critical tests of a democratic regime. First, it has to happen and on a relatively fixed schedule. In the United States, even a re-elected president will need to shape a new administration and, after a time, we can be certain that the president won?t be re-elected; there will be a new president. Political parties don?t need to rotate in office every year, but the possibility of rotation must be open if democracy is to survive?and it is best if rotation occurs fairly regularly. Second, the succession must be peaceful, without intimidation or coercion. And, third, it must be determined by a political process that culminates in elections but includes, before that, many forms of argument, agitation, and mobilization.
Populist regimes in Latin America consistently fail this test?and are failing it today, as Forrest Colburn and Alberto Trajos will argue in the Summer Dissent–though the failure is insufficiently noticed on the left. The new constitutions in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, which expand executive powers and allow the repeated re-election of the president, are designed to avoid succession or, at least, to postpone it for as long as possible. The current government is so crucial to the struggle against oppression, so the argument goes, that any succession would represent a defeat for the oppressed people. The very idea of succession before the (natural) death of the Maximal Leader is counter-revolutionary. It is worth remembering that this same idea, in the age of monarchy, was the crucial idea of the revolution.
Poland today is undergoing an unscheduled succession, and this also is a kind of test. In most authoritarian regimes, the death of so many political leaders would lead to a brutal struggle for power. The brutality might be hidden from public view, but its results would almost certainly be a new leadership and many dead politicians and political activists. So far, Poland has provided a model of institutional integrity and democratic legitimacy. The next in line will step up; the next elections will go forward on schedule; the old debates will resume as soon as the mourning is over. Death makes succession necessary, but succession does not require death.