Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei is 83 years old. With Iran’s recent decision to begin executing protesters, the protests are emerging as the greatest threat to the Islamic Republic since its inception in 1979. Iran isn’t the only autocracy with an aging leader facing uncertainty, begging the question: what will happen when Khamenei and other powerful elderly state leaders pass?
Political successions in non-consolidated democracies can be fraught with both political risk and physical risk for businesses and travelers operating there. This is especially true in regions with strong ethnic, tribal, or religious affinities and in regimes where power and legitimacy are centralized under single individuals who have strong personal ties to various stakeholders. New leadership can change a country’s economic and regulatory environment overnight. What is more, political violence, and even conflict can be born from rapid political change. These risks can be more acute when the change is more sudden, as in a case of a coup d’état. But the challenge in preparing for these situations is that they often occur with little outside warning. Without insider information, experts must rely on predictive metrics. But unlike predicting coups, succession crises are easy to foresee and therefore plan for.
Ultimately, the smoothness of a political transition by way of succession is determined by the legitimacy of both the past leader and the contender who attempts to assume power. While instability can emerge during any political transition period, successions without clear cut heirs often result in acute crises.
It doesn’t take a political scientist to appreciate the chaos that a succession crisis can unleash. One need not look further than in our popular culture to HBO’s hit shows Succession and House of the Dragon to understand the consequences of a contested succession when several stakeholders have much to gain.
Based on the age of the current autocrat, the nation or region’s history of political violence, the ambiguity surrounding heirs, and the potential national and regional impact of a succession crisis, Global Guardian has identified the Palestinian Territories, Cameroon, Iran, and Uganda as places to watch.
If you have or are considering operations, investment, or travel in one of these areas, tabletop exercises and strategic planning are vitally important.
Palestinian Territories – Mahmoud Abbas, 86
The rules of Palestinian succession are not clearly defined due to highly complex political realities. Abbas inherited his predecessor, Yasser Arafat’s various positions: president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), chairman of Fatah (the preeminent political party within the PLO) and the president of the State of Palestine (self-declared in 1988 and who’s international status is disputed). Since Abbas ostensibly froze the Palestinian democratic institutions in 2006, and as he holds several interconnected offices, it is unclear whom and how these vacancies will be filled. Abbas is seen as the last remaining founder of Fatah and his helmsmanship has prevented this ideologically diverse movement’s international fissures from boiling over into outright conflict. Further, Hamas, Israel, and international benefactors all have vested interests in influencing the succession process.
Marwan Barghouti is part of Abbas’ Fatah party and is currently serving several life sentences in Israeli prison, which increases his popularity among the populace. Current polling places Barghouti as the most preferred candidate to succeed Abbas. A key component of his political program would be to attempt to unify the two Palestinian polities and end all security coordination with Israel.
Hussein al-Sheikh is as close as there is to an heir, with Abbas having recently appointed him to secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Though al-Sheikh is deeply unpopular with the population. Al-Sheikh would act as a status quo candidate, one who would not seek to reconcile with Hamas or to end all coordination with Israel.
Mohammed Dahlan was Fatah’s former leader is Gaza who was ousted and has been living in exile in the UAE. Dahlan is Abbas’ biggest Fatah rival and supporters of Abbas and Dahlan frequently clash in the West Bank. Dahlan would likely be a reformer and seek to shake up the civil service.
While it is unclear who will succeed Abbas, there is a high probability that vacating his political positions will set into motion a series of destabilizing events, even if he were to publicly appoint a successor. The majority (59%) of Palestinians see the Palestinian Authority “as a burden” and members of the PA’s security apparatus may have conflicting political loyalties should Abbas’ demise cause a schism in Fatah. Ultimately, Abbas’ succession could lead to:
- Widespread unrest in the West Bank with Palestinians calling for fresh elections.
- Small scale clashes between rivaling factions of Fatah in a bid for political supremacy. In turn, these clashes could lead to wider scale violence should the PA’s security apparatus (Palestinian Security Services and the Palestinian National Security Forces) break apart and join the fighting.
- In a scenario where all interested parties—in an effort supported by NGOs and European countries—agree to hold elections, the outcome of the elections could spark unrest or internal conflict given the deep-seated public distrust of institutions. This scenario would become complicated should Hamas win a plurality—a probable outcome—but the PA finds an excuse to not respect the outcome. While a legitimized Hamas takeover could be averted, widespread unrest would likely ensue.
- A third Intifada (uprising) is also a possibility, and it may be triggered by any or a combination of these succession scenarios. The current levels of violence in the West Bank have reached decade highs with more terrorist incidents and more Palestinians killed in Israeli Defense Force raid. One way for any potential successor to quickly jump to political prominence is to incite and take credit for a third Intifada.
Cameroon – Paul Biya, 89
In case of the death of the current leader, a new president must be elected within 120 days, during which the President of the Senate is interim leader. Current President of the Senate is Marcel Niat Njifenji who is 88 years old and chronically ill. This means that he will not be able to effectively deviate from the constitution and assume power. Current President Paul Biya has not articulated his choice of successor.
Franck Biya is a businessman and son of President Biya. Although he has a low political profile, and has not indicated his desire for the post, he has a significant set of backers within the upper rungs of Cameroon’s business and political strata. His supporters, who refer to themselves as Franckists, see him as an attractive option for succession due to the probability that he would maintain the status quo established under Paul Biya.
Ferdinand Ngoh Ngoh is the current Minister-General Secretary of the Presidency which is the second most powerful position in the Cameroonian government. Paul Biya has permanently delegated Ngoh Ngoh signing authority which has led to speculations that he may currently be de facto leader of Cameroon. However, previous ministers have been in similar positions of power and have experienced precipitous falls from favor ending in imprisonment.
Maurice Kamto is the leader of the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (MRC) and is considered the main opposition leader. Ostensibly ‘runner-up’ in most recent contested election, Kamto is likely the only person who could win in a free and fair election in an open field. It is unlikely that Biya or Ngoh Ngoh would allow for an election willingly. But a military coup that establishes an interim government is a scenario by which Kamto could come to power. The military might enact such an arrangement due to their high casualty rate, poor living conditions, and disapproval of the current government’s running of the conflicts against Boko Haram and the Ambazonian separatists.
If Biya dies without a successor it is likely that Ngoh Ngoh and elements of Biya’s ruling clique would scramble to secure their power against agitators for democracy, elements of the military, and one another. If Biya sets up either Ngoh Ngoh or Franck Biya for succession it is likely that elements of the military could back Kamto or other non-regime actors against the succession via a coup and indefinite interim government. It is not likely that Biya or Ngoh Ngoh would allow for free elections to take place.
- In the event of a coup or death without a successor, fighting in the north and the west would intensify as Boko Haram and Ambazonian separatists take advantage of the power vacuum and attempt to secure local gains. Ambazonian gains would exacerbate Nigerian instability due to their alliance with Igbo separatists.
- Localized fighting throughout the rest of the country could erupt as the various non-Beti-Bulu tribal and clan forces attempt to secure concessions to local autonomy or acquire leverage against the new government.
- If the military or new regime set themselves up in opposition to the CFA, free elections seem imminent, or French business and political interests are otherwise threatened it is likely that France would provide material, covert, or other forms of support to whichever faction agrees to safeguard their interests and influence, most likely Ngoh Ngoh or Franck Biya.
Iran – Ali Khamenei, 83
Iran’s Supreme Leader is chosen by an 88-person body called the Assembly of Experts. This body is elected from a pool of candidates who are vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are chosen by the Supreme Leader. Thus, the institutions are structured to promote ideological and policy continuity. At the end of the day, Iran’s deep state—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who are the country’s prominent political, economic, and military actor—will likely act as kingmaker, influencing the Assembly of Experts’ choice for successor. The IRGC will ultimately choose a leader that it deems will not challenge its power.
Mojtaba Khamenei is believed to have overseen the crackdown of the 2019 protests and is known to wield power within the Supreme Leader's office, one of the most influential bodies in Iran and the security services. However, hereditary succession would contravene Shi’a Islamic convention and betray the revolution which ousted the Shah, possibly causing turmoil within the religious elite.
Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s current president, is believed to be a frontrunner, having essentially been appointed to the position by the Supreme Leader. President Raisi and his father-in-law both sit on the Assembly of Experts. Raisi was appointed by Khamenei in 2019 to chair an important economic conglomerate and was appointed to head Iran’s judiciary in 2019. Raisi might be seen as a liability as the current seismic protests are occurring under his tenure and he has yet to score any major achievements.
It is also possible for a relatively unknown candidate to be handpicked by the IRGC, as both the frontrunners carry political baggage.
The potential ramifications of the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s succession are possibly the most impactful of any political transition on the planet, which would markedly alter the geopolitics of the Middle East. No future leader selected through the current process would bring about any radical changes to the state or its foreign policy. But should Khamenei pass away amid the current popular protests, it is possible that his death could further galvanize the protests and create internal fissures within the deep state. Rifts in or between the IRGC and the clergy could lead to infighting at a juncture where the state needs to remain unified in its brutal crackdown on the ever-growing protest movement. Indeed, should Khamenei die during this current political moment, the selection of his son or Raisi—two of the most reviled characters in Iran—to succeed the Supreme Leader could deal a deathblow to the regime.
Uganda - Yoweri Museveni, 78
Uganda’s president is elected by universal suffrage in elections often criticized as being unfair. President Yoweri Museveni has served as President of Uganda since 1986, having passed legislation to end term and age limits on the presidency and jailing the opposition come election time. The next election is slated for 2026 and as it stands today, it is unlikely that President Museveni will step down to make way for his son to succeed him. However, both his health and his first-born son’s ambition may soon become an issue.
General Muhoozi Kainerugaba is President Museveni’s first-born son and the former Land Forces Commander. He is known in Uganda as “The Tweeting General” for his erratic Tweets, often opining on African and global politics. For example, in October Muhoozi tweeted “It wouldn’t take us, my army and me, 2 weeks to capture Nairobi” to which Uganda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was forced to go into damage control. Reports have emerged that Muhoozi’s tweets have irked his father, President Museveni, prompting Muhoozi’s removal from his post. Muhoozi has been named in an International Criminal Court complaint alleging his complicity in abducting and torturing opposition activists in 2021. Muhoozi has strong support among the country’s youth and within the officer corps for which many of his peers now lead.
Members of the civil service and political elites within the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party are wary of Muhoozi and have already pledged to support his father Yoweri in 2026 election. It is quite possible that the NRM will put forward its own candidate should Yoweri Museveni’s health deteriorate, as it sees General Muhoozi as a threat to the status quo.
Uganda has a history of widespread political violence and with ever-growing popular frustration with NRM rule, succession bears the potential for violence. President Museveni has been able to maintain his grip on power through a complex patronage network and by maintaining good relations with the United States, Russia, and China. Should his health materially deteriorate, it is likely that Muhoozi would mount a coup to unseat his father.
- A successful or failed coup may ignite widespread unrest with citizens—especially of other tribes—unhappy with both the economic situation and the dynastic succession. Muhoozi does not hold the same patronage network of his father and despite holding favor in military circles. A coup may cause large enough fissures in the lower ranks of the army to prompt the creation of an armed resistance.
- Should Muhoozi ascend to the presidency and maintain stability, we can expect intensified conflicts in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and other knock-on effects in the region with the Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) acting as one of the key stabilizing forces in Central and East Africa.
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