From Roys to royals, succession battles are raging the world over

Simon Tisdall

For edge-of-the-seat drama, the TV dynasty can’t match the power struggles of leading families in Japan, Saudi Arabia … and Britain

Brian Cox as patriarch Logan Roy in TV family saga Succession Brian Cox as patriarch Logan Roy in TV family saga Succession. Photograph: Graeme HunterBrian Cox as patriarch Logan Roy in TV family saga Succession. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

Sun 31 Oct 2021 02.30 EDT

Being a royal has probably never been tougher, as Princess Mako of Japan, a niece of Emperor Naruhito and daughter of Crown Prince Akishino, might complain if she weren’t so well brought up. Mako married the love of her life, Kei Komuro, last week. But rather than celebrate a fairytale romance, the Japanese public sniffed disapproval.

Komuro is a commoner with a mildly unconventional background who once briefly sported a ponytail. This caused a national trauma. Traditionally-minded Japanese were scandalised. To get her man, Mako had to renounce her royal title and become plain Mrs. Even so, opinion in Tokyo is deeply conflicted about modern royalty.

Amid a chronic dearth of royal male heirs, polls suggest most Japanese would scrap the age-old rule barring women from the Chrysanthemum Throne. About 80% support Princess Aiko, Naruhito’s 19-year-old daughter, as future empress. And while Komuro may not be quite the thing, many back Mako’s right to make her own choice without being regally debagged.

Like the dysfunctional family of media mogul Logan Roy in the HBO hit series Succession, Japan’s imperial family faces a succession crisis. Other royal households are in turmoil, too, as popular expectations and changed notions of duty fuel internal power struggles. King Abdullah of Jordan, for example, recently uncovered a Gulf-backed coup plot involving his half-brother, former Crown Prince Hamzah.

More shocking still, if Saad Aljabri, a prominent defector, is to be believed, Saudi Arabia’s “psychopathic” Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the well-known Geordie, contemplated a Macbeth-style regicide in 2014. A Russian poison ring was the ghostly dagger equivalent, Aljabri claimed last week. Imagine Kendall Roy with sandals and a beard.

In Thailand, the fitness for the highest office of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded his revered father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in 2016, continues to be disputed. Channelling Caligula, Vajiralongkorn, a thrice-divorced playboy, once promoted his pet poodle to air chief marshal. Eat your heart out, Roman Roy.

King Philip VI of Spain also has his worries in a country with an annoying habit of abolishing the monarchy. His father, Juan Carlos, abdicated in 2014 to spend more time with his mistresses, but scandal dogs him still. Last week, parliament was told the exiled ex-monarch was injected with female hormones to control his sex drive.

Britain’s increasingly fragile royals are not immune to family upheavals and changing mores, as the Harry-Meghan saga shows. The Queen’s recent indisposition may revive arguments over the succession. Prince Charles, 72, is first in line, but some unkindly suggest his eldest son, Prince William, is a more up-to-date replacement. Others urge a republican revolution.

Royal successions typically raise fundamental questions: what is a monarchy for? Can it co-exist with democracy? Do sovereigns give value for money? Norway’s royals, for example, live a commendably frugal existence on £37.5m a year. They own nine homes – and occasionally travel on public transport!

In contrast, Britain’s royals own 26 palaces, castles and estates, cost at least twice as much, and think the Tube is something on social media.

Ruling families that adopt the hereditary principle, without actually being royals, also suffer succession stress. Their legitimacy, such as it is, derives from power, not blood or history. North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, his son, Kim Jong-il, and grandson, Kim Jong-un, together made autocracy a family business – a sort of “Dictators ‘R’ Us”. But proletarian paradise was rocked in 2017 when Kim Jong-un’s embarrassing older brother, Kim Jong-nam, a Disneyland fan once considered heir to the Hermit Kingdom, was publicly assassinated. Even so, Kim Jong-un may yet face another usurper: his ambitious, slimmer sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Syrians rightly fear that their homicidal president, Bashar al-Assad, son of former president Hafez al-Assad (another mass murderer), is grooming his teenage son, also named Hafez, as killer-in-chief. Similarly, Tajikistan’s Stalin-esque leader since 1992, Emomali Rahmon, is fast-tracking his son, Rustam, to absolutist glory.

Not to be outdone, Uganda’s big man, Yoweri Museveni, accused of serial electoral fraud and systemic human rights abuses during his 35-year reign, is reportedly lining up his son, General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, for elections due in 2026.

Benign or otherwise, familial political dynasty-building is common in established democracies, too. Indira Gandhi, India’s third prime minister, was followed in public life by her son, Rajiv, his wife, Sonia, and now by their son, Rahul Gandhi. In the US, Jack, Bobby, and Teddy Kennedy built a celebrity brand. In Italy, a new Mussolini holds power in Rome.

Yet high-recognition names don’t always bring successful successions. In 2016, Jeb Bush failed miserably to emulate his brother, George W, and their father, George HW Bush, in winning the US presidency. Donald Trump is said to hope his daughter, Ivanka, will eventually follow him to the White House – but that’s a nightmare for another day.

Did Jordan’s closest allies plot to unseat its king?

Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel, made a mighty schlamassel (mess) of Germany’s political succession. First she backed a protege, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – but she flopped badly. Then she threw her weight behind jolly Armin Laschet in September’s election, only to watch him crash to record defeat.

This month saw Russia’s first royal wedding since the Bolshevik revolution. But the name of the groom – Grand Duke George Mikhailovich Romanov, a descendant of Tsar Nicholas II, another Romanov – is not enough to regain the throne. Party-pooper Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ersatz tsar, saltily declined to congratulate the happy couple.

If one thing’s worse than a succession battle, it’s having no heir at all. Take China. Its leader, Xi Jinping, is now so terrifyingly omnipotent that the comrades dare not even dream of a successor. But what happens if (celestial heavens forbid) Xi falls under the proverbial Shanghai trolley-bus? Better ask Logan Roy.

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