The Moorish Wanderer

“A Politician Who Stays Poor is Poor at Politics”

Posted in Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Read & Heard, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on January 7, 2012

From Carlos ‘Hank’ Gonzalez, cited in Bruce Bueno De Mesquita & Alastair Smith’s latest book: “The Dictator’s Handbook”.  I heard of the book when Fareed Zakaria invited De Mesquita to his show Global Public Square and there was a discussion about how Game Theory applies to political science and prediction of downfall of various regimes.

The Dictator's way of clinging on to power (Charlie Chaplin, from the 1939 movie "The Dictator")

The book is very literal, meaning that no particular concepts are invoked to make the authors’ point. They do however talk about “Winning Coalition”, and “Essentials”, which translate in cooperative game theory into similar concepts, and essentials qualify as veto-players for instance. But still, I am about to finish up reading the book, and some excerpts are truly insightful: how a figure of authority clings on to power, buys off loyalty and insures transition is as smooth as possible to their heirs (apparent). De Mesquita and Smith give some interesting explanations on how dictators like Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong-Il have managed to remain in office for so long even though they have ruled poor, isolated countries bloated with repression, corruption and nepotism; in facts, it is precisely because both dictators have managed to pay off their supporters -Mugabe notably managed to maintain the army on payroll- and keep them in line.

But the authors did not just match anecdotes with more formalized models: the key concept to their analysis is relatively simple; for any given country, there are three layers of political power:

– The Nominal “Selectorate”: that would be every citizen living within the given country. In semi-democratic and democratic countries, that would be the overall registered voters, because they have an individual power to theoretically influence every bit of decision-making process; the downside of such a wide power base is their interchangeability: one voter is just as good as another. As pointed out later on, governments, even in the most democratic countries, rarely need to muster an absolute majority of votes to get into office (and that particularly applies to the semi-democratic Kingdom of Morocco)

– The Real/Actual “Selectorate”: This is the group of people who are close enough to power to influence -at various degrees- rulers; they are, by various degrees again, decision-makers by themselves.

– Winning Coalitition Members: these are “the inner circle” without which the leader cannot hope to remain in power; their influence, power and own ambitions are such that their loyalty, bought off through appointments to high office or with outright bribery, is essential to hold on to power.

In a sense, the essential operating principle of these three concentric circles is the same across countries, whatever their level of political openness: the authors have brought up the example of USSR: Soviet citizens were after all eligible to vote, but the candidates they picked were already filtered and chosen by the Actual electorate, those members of the ruling Communist Party; as for broad policy decisions, these are taken and sanctioned at a higher level, with the Politburo and the Praesidium of the Soviets; The ousting of N. Khrushchev in 1965 is eloquent an example: members of the Politburo, fed up with some of his policies, sought his removal and replacement with a more amenable leader to their own needs; Khrushchev might have had the good of Soviet citizens at heart, but he had failed to deliver to his own comrades.

Democracies, on the other hand, have their own ‘corrupt’ means to bring together and then satisfy the winning coalition: Pork-barrel programs (US President Johnson used it a lot, a strategy he used so successfully when he was the Senate Majority Leader) are very usual in the United States congress, and in a sense, so are Knighthoods and other honours for the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. Paying off for support and loyalty takes various forms, and the wider the power-base, the more they are likely to be public goods.

The distinction between public and private goods is crucial in the differences in how democracies and autocratic regimes reward their supporters: private goods are there for the ruler to bestow on their supporters – but these private goods quickly reach their limit when the actual selectorate grows larger, typically in liberal democracies; they then revert to public goods, in shape of a hospital or a road near a loyal community, or preferential treatment and recruitment in the civil service.

Overall the book is highly recommended to read. And the pleasant style used to illustrate each concept used by the authors to make their point strikes a balance between hidden esoteric algebra and simplistic generalizations: when De Mesquita and Smith refer to winning coalitions, they are defining a key concept of coalition-building in cooperative game theory, an outcome that is conditioned by the existence of a convex hull of feasible and desirable set of outcomes, as well as well-defined and rational utility functions to each player, all of which involve a lot of topology concepts that would make rather confuse the laymen. (my former tutor, Marco Scarsini, produced some eminent papers on that subject)

How does Morocco fare in all this? I distinctly remember De Mesquita bring up Morocco as an example of successful liberalization process in the wake of the Arab spring, and perhaps they did better compared to incumbents in Tunisia and Egypt. The fact of the matter is, the more I read about how the book frames power-sharing and how incumbents curry favour with their supporters have reminded me of John Waterbury’s own seminal work “The Commander Of the Faithful”; By the authors’ standard, Morocco charts the middle course: there is a relatively widespread actual selectorate, and there are enough influential around to weight in when necessary to remind power-holders they are needed.

As the authors pointed out repeatedly throughout the book, there is no such thing as ‘Absolute Rule’: the argument that an autocrat has to rely on some sort of Praetorian guard to retain their power. So in essence, power in Morocco is not absolute, it is diluted around in concentric circles; this, of course, is a well-known concept, as Mohamed Sassi brought it up in 2006; and very little has changed since then – it is up to the new government to wrestle control over specific departments by building their own winning coalitions, either by bringing some new, fresh outsiders or by attracting disgruntled members of the existing inside coalition by offering more rewards: some representatives of the business community (Karim Tazi, Miloud Châabi, among others) have been early backers of the Feb20 protests, a sign perhaps of their dissatisfaction with how the inner circle roughs them up on particular business deals.

What about the Left in Morocco? What sort of coalition can they build around to force a distribution of power to their advantage? Since the proclaimed principle of power transfer as recognized by most of the left-wingers is regular elections (how ever loud they shout slogans when they take to the streets) there is a need for some sort of coalition building that strikes a balance between wide but diffuse popular support, and corporatist interests.


3 Responses

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  1. Hisham said, on January 7, 2012 at 11:35

    Sounds like a great book indeed. As for western style democracies, I think the notion of a “winning coalition” should be watered down a little bit. I don’t see that the idea of an “inner circle” vital to the survival of the political system itself holds really. But I must agree, there is an alarming trend in so-called liberal democracies today who rely rather organically on big business, which, in some cases is the real constituency.
    Good post!

  2. Hisham said, on January 10, 2012 at 05:37

    There was a time when the author used to answer comments. It was really fun 😥 Sigh!

    • Zouhair Baghough said, on January 10, 2012 at 10:54

      I’m so sorry!!
      there was a time the author had time to spare a post on a daily basis, too 😦
      as for the comment on “winning coalition”, just think of these as lobbies, without which a political leader cannot rise to power: unions, wealthy individuals, special interest groups, that sort of thing. Their influence shows before elections, in the process of selecting candidates.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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