Does Divided Government Matter?

Editor’s Note:

This is the fourth in a week-long series highlighting Stephen R. Grand’s new book Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy.  Yesterday, Brookings is hosted a book launch for Grand, a nonresident senior fellow with the Saban Center– and former director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. You can find Grand’s previous entries on the Iran@Saban website.

Will Iran’s unique style of divided government buffer it from the winds of change sweeping the region?  Will the fact that Iran’s Supreme Leader “reigns rather than rules,” give the system the additional flexibility to weather change?

Others have noted that the regimes that fell during the Arab Spring were all autocratic republics rather than monarchies. Some have argued that monarchies are more stable because the divided nature of governance allows for the government to be replaced without the regime as a whole being overturned — a line of reasoning  that could apply to the Islamic Republic as well.  Monarchies (and theocracies) can draw upon other sources of legitimacy such as, history, religion, and culture – in order to sustain their rule.

This argument has merit, but only up to a point. Republican dictatorships may be more susceptible to being supplanted because their legitimacy derives solely from the promises and cult of personality built up around a single leader.  But at least in the case of the Middle East, the monarchies have enjoyed advantages that go beyond their religious or historical claims to authority.  Namely, in the case of the Gulf monarchies, they had the advantage of oil resources, while Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom had the advantage of extensive foreign assistance from the United States.  These additional resources may have been more important in explaining these regimes’ durability than any claim to divine right.

In fact, looking beyond the Middle East to the rest of the world, the claim of divine right seems all but obsolescent.  As mentioned elsewhere, outside the Middle East, there remain but two ruling monarchies:  tiny Brunei and Swaziland.

What the divided government of monarchies and the Islamic Republic may provide is a potential pathway for change without a rupture in the system as a whole. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani clearly won the presidency because, rightly or wrongly, he appeared to Iranian voters to be the candidate for change.  Whether he can use this mandate to make fundamental reforms to the system, strengthen the hand of the presidency, and diminish the formal power of the clerics remains to be seen. If not, more extra-systemic challenges to the system can be expected.