Family Affairs

4 minute read
Joshua Kurlantzick

In recent months, a wave of political agitation has swept much of Asia, crashing through Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and even normally placid Japan, where popular anger buried the Liberal Democratic Party in upper house elections. In all these countries, the public has demanded more keys to power — free votes, and transparent and responsive politicians. Instead, they are getting keys to time machines. Despite these calls for change, Asia’s political classes are responding by regurgitating the same tired faces.

Dynasties still dominate Asia’s political life, and, in doing so, stand squarely in the way of democratic progress. That’s not a problem confined to Asia, but seems particularly acute in the region. In India, the otherwise rational Congress Party recently elevated Rahul Gandhi to general secretary — a potential stepping stone to Prime Minister — even though he had just led the party to defeat in the Uttar Pradesh state election and has articulated few fresh policy ideas. In the Philippines, one study has found that more than half the members of Congress hail from a political family. Even in China, where Mao Zedong rose to power demonizing feudalism, a class of “princelings,” sons of former revolutionary cadres, has risen like feudal lords, including Shanghai Communist Party boss Xi Jinping, anointed during last month’s Party Congress as President Hu Jintao’s likely successor.

During times of repression, icons such as Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burmese independence hero Aung San, can be powerful symbols of hope, and reminders of a country’s golden years. But once countries become democracies, parties controlled by dynasties often abandon ideology, because they become entrenched around families who concentrate only on perpetuating themselves, shutting out outside thinkers who can germinate ideas and passion. Shinzo Abe, grandson of a former Prime Minister, spent his time in office focused on historic legacies like Japan’s conduct in World War II, rather than addressing pressing challenges like how to boost employment and revamp the nation’s health system — and lost his job. Yet after ousting Abe, the Liberal Democrats turned to Yasuo Fukuda, another political scion, who seems similarly bereft of new ideas.

Political clans also scorn accountability. Benazir Bhutto’s past two terms in office as Pakistan’s Prime Minister were marked by massive corruption — under her rule, Transparency International ranked Pakistan as the world’s second most corrupt nation, after Nigeria. Corruption can occur in any political system, but dynastic politics makes it worse. An expectation of entitlement reduces a politician’s fear that he or she will be caught robbing the till, and the certainty that their sons or daughters will follow provides even more security that he or she will be protected from any future attempts to investigate corruption under their watch.

Clans also prevent fresh political groups from emerging — far more important in developing nations than in stable, two-party political systems. In Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina Wazed and her chief rival, Khaleda Zia, both of whom hail from political dynasties, have swatted down past attempts to form new parties. When Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus tried to launch a party earlier this year, many Bangladeshi politicians, including those from Hasina’s party, quickly attacked him.

Despite their vices, dynasties often retain their hold on people. Bhutto and Hasina remain genuinely popular, while crowds mob Gandhi and his sister Priyanka. From India to China, many people still place a high priority on helping their family first — business dynasties control some of the largest Indian companies, and princelings dominate sectors of the Chinese economy — so average citizens simply may look at family politics as normal. The fascination with celebrities also helps the dynasties, which produce known quantities ready for their close-ups.

Dynastic rule is, of course, not exclusive to Asia. In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will succeed her husband Néstor as President. A recent study on the U.S. Congress discovered that congresspeople who stay in office for many years tend to have relatives serve in that chamber in the future. And with Hillary Clinton currently the frontrunner in the U.S. presidential race, America could face 28 years with either a Clinton or a Bush in the White House. In too many nations worldwide, politics is still, sadly, a family affair.

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