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Inherited Power: Are Asia’s political dynasties in decline?

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Congress Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka were showered with flowers as Rahul drove to nominate for election in April 2014. But the family magic didn't work for Congress this time. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

It may seem that after several recent electoral defeats of prominent national dynasts, Asia’s ‘ruling families’ are in decline. But a closer look suggests that reports of their political deaths are premature.


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The most prominent recent setback was the crushing defeat of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty-run Indian Congress Party in the May 2014 elections, which swept the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power and left the Congress Party with only 44 seats in the Indian parliament.

The Nehru-Gandhis have governed India directly as prime minister (Nehru, Indira, Rajiv Gandhi) or indirectly as the ‘power behind the throne’ (Sonia Gandhi) for more than a half a century. But a lacklustre campaign led by Sonia’s son, Rahul Gandhi, who has little apparent skill or even interest in politics, seemed to mark the end of the political road. The BJP struck an anti-dynastic pose that appeared to resonate with voters, while the Congress Party has appeared directionless without a strong family dynasty to unite it and appeal to India’s poor voters.

The shock defeat in Sri Lanka of president Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015 seemed to be another example of ‘dynasty down’. Rajapaksa’s defeat was attributed not just to his administration’s growing dictatorial tendencies, but also to the blatant nepotism and corruption that saw him turning his family into the country’s new ruling clan. Besides appointing one brother Defence Secretary and another Senior Presidential Advisor, a third became Speaker of Parliament. At one point the Rajapaksa brothers were said to have direct control, through their ministries, of more than two-thirds of the national budget.

In Indonesia, Joko Widodo (Jokowi), a political outsider who campaigned on his image as a common man who understands the people, was elected president in July 2014. The narrow loss to Jokowi by former president Suharto’s former son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, seemed to be a further sign of dynastic decline.

In the Philippines — one of Asia’s most dynastic democracies, where one child of a president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, succeeded another, the discredited Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — the once popular Noynoy Aquino has lost public support following a major pork-barrel scandal and a botched anti-terror operation.

In Thailand protests, judicial activism and then a May 2014 coup ended the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was seen as the puppet of her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In Malaysia, dynasties seem to be facing a dual crisis. In government, Prime Minister Najib Razak — the son of a former prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein — faces growing criticism for corruption. In the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim has come under attack for attempting to appoint his wife as chief minister of Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state.

The death of authoritarian Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015 raised questions about the political future of the Lee family now that the ‘founding father’ was gone.

Despite all this, a closer look suggests that the reality is more complex, and dynasticism is still very much alive and well in Asian politics.

In India, the Congress Party has come back from defeats before and may well again under Rahul Gandhi’s sister Priyanka, who is said to closely resemble her grandmother Indira both physically and in terms of political savvy. Meanwhile, the BJP has itself adopted a ‘dynastic strategy’ with a number of its leading parliamentary candidates the scions of major families.

In Sri Lanka the new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is nephew to a former president and leader of the United National Party — which is often derided as the ‘Uncle and Nephews Party’.

In Indonesia Jokowi is beholden to Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party, PDI-P, remains the chief basis for his influence in parliament. Megawati was president from 2001-2004 and is a daughter of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno. In the Philippines, where new dynasties quickly fill the gap left by declining ones, Grace Poe — the adopted daughter of former presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr — is now a frontrunner in the upcoming 2016 presidential elections.

In Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra remains highly popular among a significant part of the electorate. The ongoing trial of his still widely admired sister, Yingluck, for a rice subsidy scheme has brought international and domestic pressure to bear on the country’s military rulers.

Then there is Japan. Alongside the US, Japan is the developed country with the most prominent political dynasties, with seven of eleven prime ministers in the last 20 years hailing from political dynasties, including the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee. And in Singapore, the ‘dynasty’ label remains extremely sensitive, with threats to sue anyone who applies the word to the Lee family. Lee Hsien Loong, the current Prime Minister, is the elder son of the first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is building up a family political dynasty to replace the Bhuttos, while Benazir Bhutto’s son is attempting to revitalise his family’s Pakistan People’s Party.

Aung San Suu Kyi remains the chief opposition figure to the reforming but still military-dominated regime in Myanmar. Suu Kyi is a reminder of a period when prominent female dynasts, the daughters, wives or widows of ‘martyred’ male leaders, led major democratic opposition movements across Asia.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has preserved communist rule into a third generation despite appallingly low living standards. On the other end of the development scale, China is now led by a so-called princeling (the son of a prominent party leader), Xi Jinping, and there are many other princelings in high positions.

As I have argued elsewhere, political dynasties are flourishing in Asia, whatever the political system — electoral democratic, authoritarian, Stalinist-style totalitarian rule in North Korea or ‘market-Leninist’ in China. Asia’s dynasties are modern hybrids in which elite political aims are linked to popular norms of charismatic legitimacy, often in the context of weak or decaying institutions. Dynasties often cultivate loyal followings through inherited charisma. Dynasts are only considered bad when they lose their mass appeal and are seen to represent only their own family and not the national interest. When dynasts first take power they are often lauded as heroes with an irresistible family legacy.

Descendants of charismatic leaders continue to play a major role in politics in Asia. They often remain key to the survival of a leading political party, an opposition movement or even the regime itself.

Mark R Thompson is acting head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Leadership in the region.

3 responses to “Inherited Power: Are Asia’s political dynasties in decline?”

  1. The situation in Indonesia is somewhat more complex than the author suggests. That Prabowo was once married to one of Soeharto’s daughters was not a major aspect of his presidential campaign.

    After all, had Hillary Clinton divorced her husband, her current presidential candidacy would surely offer less convincing proof of the growth of dynastic politics in the US than does her actual status as Bill’s long-suffering wife.

    By an ironic twist of fate, Jokowi’s relations with Prabowo now seem to be improving, compared at least with his relations with Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati.

    The fact that he is president nonetheless points to a decline in the power of the Sukarno dynasty over that sector of the Indonesian political system normally described as ‘secular nationalist’. Megawati will make sure, however, that he never takes over her party. That bastion is for one or other of her children to inherit.

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