Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family


(from left to right) Bilawal Bhutto, Kim Jong-un, Rahul Gandhi
(from left to right) Bilawal Bhutto, Kim Jong-un, Rahul Gandhi
Photos: AP & EPA
Kim Jong-un was named by his father as the state’s leader. This may sound strange in a modern world, but the idea of a political dynasty is not confined to emperors in China.

India’s Rahul Gandhi is on a quest to become the fourth generation of his family to rule India. The Congo’s Joseph Kabila is celebrating his questionable re-election to the presidency he inherited from his father. Or to former Indonesian former president Megawati Sukarnoputri was the daughter of the country’s first president.

North Korea’s preparations to transfer power to a third generation of the Kim family, following the recent death of Kim Jong Il, is by no means an anomaly: In both democracies and dictatorships, political dynasties abound across the world.

While former US President George W. Bush — the son of a president and the grandson of a senator — was never dubbed "the Great Successor," and Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto — who followed in her assassinated father’s footsteps — was never said to have been "born of heaven," just like Kim Jong Un they ended up in the family business of running a country.

While some dictators pass on power to their children as a veritable inheritance, dynasties exert a powerful pull in democracies as well. The identity of a party might be deeply linked to a family. A familiar name might give a political scion an edge on the ballot, further strengthened by the family’s established political and fundraising machines. Sometimes the heir is a puppet, a brand name needed to rally the public, while backroom power brokers pull the levers. Or a nation in mourning over the death of its leader might turn to the grieving child for comfort and continuity.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of America’s Political Dynasties, sees nothing unusual about politics becoming a family business.

"Aren’t bakers more likely to be bakers if their fathers were bakers?" he said in an email.

The most successful dynasty in the world is probably India’s Nehru-Gandhi family, which held the prime minister’s post for 37 of the country’s 64 years of independence and is working on bringing another generation to power.

In the huge, multiethnic tapestry of India, the Gandhis are seen as among the few with a nationwide appeal that cuts across language, region and caste, said historian Ramachandra Guha.

Less than two years after the death of India’s first Prime Minister Jawarhalal Nehru, leaders of his Congress party turned to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to head the country, incorrectly judging her as a weak and pliant puppet.

After her assassination in 1984, the mourning nation looked to her son Rajiv to take her place. After his 1991 assassination, his widow Sonia eventually became the most powerful politician in the ruling party even as she groomed her son, Rahul, to eventually take over.

But Guha believes dynastic politics are waning in the country, with voters more focused on development and other issues.

"Rahul Gandhi has by no means shown anything like the popular appeal that his father or grandmother or great grandfather had," he said.

Then there’s the Philippines, where President Benigno Aquino, son of former President Corazon Aquino, took over last year from Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal.

Unlike in many countries, where voters might feel a loyalty to a political party, in the Philippines, they identify with a family that has traditionally looked out for their welfare, said political analyst Ramon Casiple. The dynastic system is so entrenched it survived and thrived during centuries of Spanish and American rule and even the transition to democracy, he said.

When party leaders die in the Philippines, their children nearly always replace them. If the party chooses someone else, the spurned heir often forms a new party, leaving the old one to wither, Casiple said.

"The party is not that strong. It doesn’t have an independent life. They depend on the good will of the family on top of it," he said.

The passing of power is a delicate maneuver in authoritarian regimes. While Fidel Castro managed the transition to his brother, Raul, in Cuba, dynastic politics were strongly rejected in the Arab world this year.

Hosni Mubarak’s efforts to pass on the Egyptian presidency to his son Gamal were among the main causes behind the wave of street protests that toppled his 29-year authoritarian regime. Before he was overthrown and killed, longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi appeared to be grooming his son Seif al-Islam Gadhafi to take over.

And Syrian President Bashar Assad, who inherited his office upon his father’s death in 2000, has been fighting off a rebellion with a crackdown that has killed more than 5,000 people this year, according to U.N. figures.

Perhaps Pakistan might be Kim Jong Un’s best bet for finding out how to cope with the surreal experience of being thrust, with little political background, into a leadership role in a mourning nation.

Just three days after the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto — herself the daughter of slain Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — her 19-year-old son Bilawal Zardari was declared the new chairman of her party.

Looking deeply uncomfortable in front of more than a dozen microphones on national television, he answered a single question, saying he would continue his studies at Oxford and talking of political leadership as something that can be willed from generation to generation. "When I return, I promise to lead the party as my mother wanted me to," he said.

Within days, Bilawal Zardari began calling himself Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, and over the past four years has become increasingly known simply as Bilawal Bhutto.

But when his party won elections in 2008, there was no talk of handing authority over a nuclear nation rife with political intrigue and wracked by tensions with a powerful neighbor to someone whose only qualification was his bloodline.

Instead, his father was named president.


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