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How the world's longest-serving leaders keep power, and hand it over

The only president Kazakhstan has known since independence is stepping aside, though not really down.

Data: Axios research; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios
  • Nursultan Nazarbayev carved out a powerful position for himself, set in motion a transition that should protect his family’s interests, and even had the capital city renamed in his honor — a model exit for any aspiring autocrat.

The big picture: With Nazarbayev’s surprise announcement, Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika ending his re-election bid, and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir wobbling in the face of mass protests, the time feels ripe to take a look at the current world leaders who’ve held power the longest.

  • The 20 longest-serving leaders all represent countries considered “not free” by Freedom House.
  • The top 23 are all men. It isn’t until number 24 that we hit a “free” country, or a female leader — Germany’s Angela Merkel.
  • Worth noting: Just below Putin in the rankings are Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (18 years), Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (18) and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (16).

Between the lines: As regular readers may have picked up on, I’m fascinated by what Putin’s next move might be when he runs up against constitutional term limits in 2024.

  • There’s speculation he might form a union with Belarus (whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is also high on this list) and place himself in charge.

Nazarbayev offers a different path, and one Putin will surely be watching closely.

  • Simply ceding power wasn't an attractive option but, as Carnegie Moscow's Alexander Gabuev points out, "if you want to keep your loved ones free, alive and wealthy, dying in office isn't an option."
  • Instead, Nazarbayev weakened the presidency and empowered the security council, which he still leads, then elevated his daughter to a powerful post second in line to the presidency.
  • Gabuev cites Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, as Nazarbayev's model. He made way for his son, Lee Hsien Loong, who is now 21st on our list after 14 years in power.

In the Russian case, Alina Polyakova of Brookings argued recently that there is likely no successor who could guarantee the safety of Putin, his family and his assets. She expects some testing of public opinion through state TV ahead of whatever Putin's next move may be.

  • Keir Giles of Chatham House thinks Putin almost certainly has a succession plan in mind already and predicts that Putinism will long outlast Putin. He warns: "Change in Russia is not always change, and it's certainly not always positive."

Meanwhile, Africa is home to half of the 24 longest-serving leaders and 5 of the top 7. There are two major reasons Africa’s longtime leaders have been able to retain power, according to Council on Foreign Relations analysis:

  • “Military coups were once common as a means to seize power, with both [Equatorial Guinea's] Mbasogo and [Uganda's Yoweri] Museveni entering their presidencies this way. ... [T]here were 27 successful coups from 1970 to 1982, but only 12 from 2000 to 2012, and just the one against [Zimbabwe’s Robert] Mugabe since then.
  • “Leaders are increasingly securing longer terms through ‘constitutional coups’ … that allow for additional terms in office. This practice grew more frequent after 2000. … Since then, at least 17 heads of state have tried to remain in power by tweaking their countries’ constitutions.”

Flashback: Eight years ago, before the Arab Spring, this would have been a considerably different list. Since then, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali have fallen — not to mention Mugabe, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Angola's José Eduardo dos Santos.

What to watch: There are a number of leaders not currently on our list who are working to ensure they join it.

Notes on the list

  • We're only counting a leader's current period in office. You won't see Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, for example, despite his 22 total years at the helm (with a 15-year hiatus).
  • Counting can be tricky. We went for 28 years for Nazarbayev, for example, though he also led Kazakhstan for two years prior to independence from the USSR.
  • We left off tiny countries (sorry to Samoan readers) and monarchs (apologies to Her Majesty).