All the presidents’ kin
©The Edge Review 2015
Surveying the emerging field for the 2016 US presidential contest, I was feeling dispirited by the prospect of Clinton vs Bush. Surely 330 million people could find candidates other than Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former president, and Jeb Bush, brother and son of two former presidents?
But then I looked around East Asia and realized that hereditary politics is more common than not — and that’s not a good thing if you believe that democracy requires informed citizens to be fully engaged, and feel they have a real choice in their own future.
Start in Southeast Asia. Najib Razak, Malaysia’s embattled sixth prime minister, is the eldest son of its second, Abdul Razak Hussein. Singapore’s third prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is the eldest son of its founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who died a fortnight ago at age 91.
Myanmar may just join them if Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, leads her National League for Democracy party to victory in the next scheduled elections. She is barred by a constitutional clause from becoming president but could emerge as the speaker of the parliament.
Brunei is a sultanate, and Thailand is a kingdom, so those obviously qualify for passing along power by birthright. But the granddaddy of dynastic politics is the Philippines, where President Benigno Aquino III is the son of former president and “people power” hero Corazon C. Aquino. And his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is the daughter of former president Diosdado Macapagal.
Elections in the Philippines are scheduled for 2016, and already the handicappers are weighing the odds on whether candidates will include Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator and son of the former dictator of the same name, Jinggoy Estrada, son of the actor and former president Joseph Estrada, and Kris Aquino, an actress and sister of Benigno.
Indonesians last year celebrated breaking the elite’s hold on politics with the election of provincial entrepreneur Joko Widodo as president over Prabowo Subianto, the former son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto. But Widodo’s critics maintain that he is the puppet of his mentor, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno.
The Communist countries of Indochina at a glance seem much better at fostering a political meritocracy. But now one sees Cambodia’s longtime strongman Hun Sen promoting his three sons, Hun Manet, Hun Manith and Hun Many to top positions in the military and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Critics have accused Hun Sen, 62, of setting up a dynastic succession.
Look north and political dynasties are as strong as ever. The two Koreas are both run by presidents’ children. Kim Jong Un had power handed to him by his father, Kim Jong Il, himself the heir to his father Kim Il Sung’s dictatorship. In South Korea, Park Geun-hye was elected president but is the daughter of 18-year military strongman Park Chung-hee.
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s father and grandfather were both politicians, and his mother is the daughter of a post-war prime minister.
And then there’s China’s President and Communist Party General Secretary, Xi Jinping, who practically grew up in the elite leadership compound at Zhongnanhai, where his father Xi Zhongxun, one of the revolutionary heroes close to Mao Zedong, held a variety of top party positions.
With all these children and heirs of former leaders now in power, an Asian regional summit these days must resemble something close to a reunion of an exclusive college fraternity. They can swap stories about growing up in palaces or being shuttled to school with bodyguards.
Does the persistence of these political dynasties stifle democratic development? It can, to the extent that it reinforces people’s fear that elections are a revolving door for the elite, and ordinary people need not apply.
This is particularly true in closed systems where leaders are secretly handpicked by party elders.
But voters are smart. When given a real choice, they judge candidates based on their accomplishments and performance, not their pedigree. Megawati, for example, was named president by lawmakers after her predecessor was impeached, but she was soundly defeated, twice, when she ran for the office in direct elections; her record was one of drift and indecisiveness.
I would argue that when Hillary Clinton ran in 2008, her last name was on balance a handicap against Barack Obama, who promised a break from the past. In 2016, Clinton will have a longer resume as a former high-flying secretary of state, more out of her husband’s shadow. Jeb Bush, meanwhile, is running against his brother’s unpopular record.
But either of those two will be in very familiar company when they travel to Asia to meet their well-heeled counterparts.
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