|Volume 7 | Issue 01 | January 2013 ||
A Tale of Political Dynasties
SYED BADRUL AHSAN traces the phenomenon around the world.
The election of Park Geun-hye to the presidency of South Korea, or the Republic of Korea as the country is officially known, takes one back to that old question of political dynasties that one has reflected on in recent times. Ms. Park's father, the late one-time dictator Park Chung-hee, is remembered by South Koreans today for two distinctive characteristics that underpinned his presidency all the way from 1961, the year in which he, as a general, overthrew the country's civilian government, till 1979, when he was assassinated. Park Chung-hee led a harsh dictatorship which brooked no opposition, a phase in history that saw systematic repression of dissidents like Kim Dae-Jung, who was destined to be president himself. For all his dictatorial behaviour, though, General Park presided over something of an economic miracle in South Korea,pushing it into a region of prosperity from which it was not to turn back.
Now that Park Chung-hee's daughter has achieved office through a democratic election, she will be keenly watched for the vision and leadership she has on offer. She cannot afford to forget the fact that she won the presidency in a divisive election, winning just 51% of the votes cast. Indeed, leadership, the quality of it, has by and large been a loaded question for the children of political figures who once happened to hold power, or came close to it. Indonesia's Meghawati Sukarnoputri did make it to the presidency, but unlike her father Ahmed Sukarno was unable to forge national unity across the spectrum and run the show as a strong leader. It remains an irony that it was one of her ministers, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who forged ahead of her to gain the presidency in his own right.
Conditions have been a little more complex in the Philippines, where efforts by the family of Ferdinand Marcos to promote a dynasty never quite took off. Imelda Marcos' clear ambition was to succeed her husband at Malacanang presidential palace. It was disrupted and then destroyed by the authoritarianism that she and her husband came to exemplify, enough to force them into exile in 1986. But other dynasties in Manila have been a trifle more fortunate. Gloria Arroyo Macapagal, now in hot soup on corruption-related charges, was nevertheless able in her time to ascend to the presidency. Her father, President Diosdado Macapagal, lost power to the dynamic and promising (and yet to be dictatorial) Marcos in 1965. Arroyo, an economist by training and education, was not quite able to create the positive stir she was expected to when she won the presidency of the Philippines. Her charisma was unable to match that of Corazon Aquino, the widow of the murdered Benigno Aquino and successor to Ferdinand Marcos. Mrs. Aquino's biggest contribution has been to place the Philippines, following the chaotic Marcos years, on a somewhat stable footing. As a result, civilian predominance in the country came to be an assured thing, to a point where today it is her son, Benigno Aquino junior, who governs as president. He has yet to prove to be a remarkable national leader.
The extent to which political dynasties make or mar democracy remains open to question. But there is hardly any gainsaying the fact that they often make a niche for themselves through public support, based it is on memories of or nostalgia for departed leaders. The quality of the younger generation of political leaders springing from the legacies of former leaders may not quite be of an elevated sort, but in the public mind it is the image that matters. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the child of Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari, has just made his formal entry into politics. He is yet too young to qualify for membership of Pakistan's national assembly, but that does not much matter in a country where it is the contributions as well as sacrifices of a family that are considered important. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for all his authoritarian rule between 1971 and 1977, and Benazir Bhutto, despite the two corruption-laced governments she led between the late 1980s and mid 1990s, remain powerful symbols of leadership for millions of Pakistanis. One might not be impressed with Zardari's leadership of the country, for a horde of reasons, but one can be quite sure that his son could go a long way, in a manner similar to the path traversed by Rahul Gandhi, the son of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, in India.
Not all dynasties have a smooth ride, though. America's Kennedys, once considered the epitome of power and grace, over time turned into a long saga of suffering reminiscent of Greek tragedy. John Fitzgerald Kennedy's election to the White House in 1960, followed by the appointment of his brother Robert Francis Kennedy as attorney general in 1961, was regarded by Americans across the spectrum as the rise of a dynasty in national politics. JFK's assassination in November 1963 came as a shock, both to America and the Kennedy clan. But that turned out to be pretty temporary at the time, especially with Robert Kennedy's election to the US Senate in 1964. RFK had desperately wished to be President Lyndon Johnson's running mate at the November 1964 election, but when that did not happen, his fans began to look upon him as a future president. The LBJ presidency soon came to be regarded by Kennedy acolytes as an interregnum between JFK and RFK in the White House. Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles in 1968, as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination, quickly turned the focus on the youngest, and surviving Kennedy brother, Massachusetts Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. But Edward Kennedy destroyed any chances he might have had of being president through the Chappaquidick incident in 1969, in which a young woman named Mary Jo Kopechne died when the car he was driving with her in it fell off a bridge into a lake. Kennedy climbed out of the car and walked off to safety but was unable to explain his conduct of leaving the woman in the car at the bottom of the lake. Edward Kennedy made a feeble attempt at seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 1980 in a bruising battle with President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy did not get the nomination. And Carter lost his bid for a second term when he was trounced by Ronald Reagan in November that year.
It does not appear that there will be a Romney dynasty in Washington. Back in 1968, George Romney, governor of Michigan, was touted for weeks as the front runner for the Republican nomination for the presidency even as the Democratic Party appeared to be tearing itself apart over President Johnson's disastrous policies over a prosecution of the Vietnam War. Romney's decision, at that point, to visit South Vietnam and observe American forces repulse the Vietcong was regarded as a necessary act by a prospective president. Impressed with what he saw, Romney came back home and highly praised American GIs' morale and performance in the war. On the ground, however, the war was going badly for the US. And soon Romney made the public announcement that he had been brainwashed by senior American military officials into believing that America was winning the war. His support base quickly eroded and eventually it was Richard Nixon, the former vice president who had lost narrowly to John Kennedy in 1960, who won the nomination and, in November 1968, the presidency.
In 2008, it was Romney's son Mitt Romney, once governor of Massachusetts, who lost a hard-fought battle against Senator John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination. Republican supporters did not consider the younger Romney conservative enough to lead the party to power. In 2012, however, Mitt Romney had better luck. He did win his party's nomination and towards the end of the campaign was virtually locked in a tie with incumbent Barack Obama. At a point the probability of a Romney presidency supplanting the Obama administration loomed large. In the end, it did not happen. And George Romney and Mitt Romney have simply ended up as the father-son team that went close to the White House but then could not make it up the stairs and into the Oval Office. That is a trifle sad, considering that two other similar teams, of John Adams and John Quincy Adams and of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, actually did make their way to the presidency.
Dynasties, when they come in the shape of husband-wife teams, leave mixed legacies behind. Argentina's Juan Domingo Peron and his wives, first Evita Peron and then Isabelita Peron, left behind a myth which has quite glossed over their performance. And today, Cristina Kirchner presides over a country which till recently was governed by her husband Nestor Kirchner. She battles many demons and refuses to throw in the towel. There could be a lesson here for the elegant Ms. Park Geun-hye.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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