Family affair

In Southeast Asia, politics is increasingly a family affair

Political dynasties increasingly dominate governments in Southeast Asia, posing an obstacle to good governance in one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions.

In the Philippines, the leading candidates for president and vice president in next year’s elections both come from powerful political dynasties linked to human rights abuses. In neighboring Indonesia, the president who shook up the country’s politics by winning elections despite a modest family background recently saw his son and son-in-law take office after joining his political party. In Cambodia, the country’s authoritarian leader announced in speeches earlier this month that he hoped his son would succeed him and that only assassination or untimely death could change that “political direction”.

The prevalence of dynasties reflects the great power that individual families wield in a rapidly growing region of the world that is nevertheless marked by high levels of income inequality and state repression. “If you look at key indicators of governance and institutional checks and balances, Southeast Asian countries tend to score very low,” said Richard Heydarian, associate professor at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. . “In this environment, it is very easy for political dynasties to thrive.”

Academics and watchdog groups say dynasties can worsen governance, with unqualified candidates exploiting the support of powerful relatives to gain power, crowding out the emergence of capable grassroots leaders. There are dynasties in other countries as well, including wealthy Western democracies, such as the United States, with its Kennedy and Bush clans, and Canada, with its Trudeaus, but in these countries there are more chances for those born outside political families to make a dent. .

In the Philippines, on the other hand, politics is often a family affair. Polls show that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of a former dictator, is the heavy favorite to win next year’s presidential election. His running mate – Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of current President Rodrigo Duterte – is far ahead in the polls for the vice-presidency, which is elected separately.

Sara Duterte-Carpio, daughter of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, is leading in the polls to be elected vice president in next year’s election.


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Ronald Mendoza, dean and professor at the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, conducted research with colleagues that found that in 1988, 41% of governors in the Philippines had at least one parent in office, a figure that has doubled to reach 80% in 2019. The trend is similar, though less extreme, for mayors, with 40% having family in power in 2004, which rose to 53% in 2019, according to his research.

Dynasties are so widespread that Mr. Mendoza’s team even coined terms to distinguish between dynasties where several family members simultaneously hold positions of government – the so-called great dynasties – and dynasties where the power is transmitted to younger generations sequentially – the so-called thin dynasties. Mr Mendoza said the country’s “fat dynasties” are particularly pernicious because relatives in power at the same time can bend state institutions to serve family interests, including punishing political rivals.

The constitution of the Philippines was designed as a check on family rule. It was ratified in 1987, a year after a grassroots movement succeeded in ousting Ferdinand Marcos, the Filipino dictator who is the father of the current leading presidential candidate. The constitution formally bans political dynasties but requires lawmakers to take steps to bring the ban into effect. Over the years, bills have been introduced to restrict family control of key positions, but none have passed, which researchers say is in part due to the fact that a large portion of family members the legislature are themselves dynastic descendants.

In recent years, the Dutertes have extended their influence far beyond their base in the southern Philippines and now play a prominent role in national politics. Ms Duterte-Carpio, a running mate, is currently mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, which was ruled for more than two decades by her charismatic father, Rodrigo Duterte, before he became President. When Ms Duterte-Carpio withdrew her name for reelection as mayor in November to run for vice president, she announced that her brother, Sebastian Duterte, the current vice mayor of Davao City, would campaign for succeed him. Another brother, Paolo Duterte, is a member of the Philippine House of Representatives.

Gibran Rakabuming Raka, in blue, is the son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo who recently won the race for mayor of a town in Central Java.


News Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg

Neighboring Indonesia has also faced its own powerful families, such as the Sukarno and Suharto clans, but in recent years it has seemed to be making progress in bringing them under control. when he won the presidency with the promise of competent governance. Shortly after Mr. Widodo was elected, the Indonesian government changed election rules to prohibit close family members from succeeding their relatives as governors or mayors.

But Indonesia’s constitutional court struck down the provision in 2015, saying it violated the right of family members to stand for election. In the following years, the number of dynastic candidates increased in Indonesia, according to Yoes Kenawas, an Indonesian doctor. candidate at Northwestern University who studies the political dynasties of his country. According to his tally, in 2013 there were 39 dynastic politicians holding subnational administrative positions like regent, mayor and governor. That number, he said, rose to 117 in 2018. “We are heading towards the Philippines trajectory,” Kenawas said.

Yet Mr. Widodo proved to be quite different from the prominent and sometimes haughty families that had previously held the presidency. In an Instagram post in 2018, Mr Widodo said he felt blessed to have independent children and described their seemingly humble careers: one sells coffee, another dessert pancakes, a third donuts. banana. “I no longer have to think about where they will find work or what profession they will be in,” he wrote in the post.

Hun Manet, son of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strongman, is his father’s choice as future prime minister.


Heng Sinith/Associated Press

The answer – at least for some close ones – turned out to be in politics. Last year, his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 34, the pancake vendor, ran and was elected mayor of Solo, a mid-sized town in Central Java which his father had also governed. A son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, was elected mayor of Medan, a major city on the island of Sumatra. Mr Widodo told local media at the time that it was up to the voters to decide who they wanted to lead them and that he had never pushed his children to follow him in politics. Still, some Indonesian civil society groups have expressed concern, noting Mr Widodo’s son faces little political opposition, competing with a largely unknown tailor who won less than 15% of the vote.

“Creating a dynasty is actually a rational choice” for politicians seeking to extend their terms but facing term limits, Kenawas said. Under Indonesian law, Mr. Widodo cannot be re-elected in 2024, after serving two five-year terms.

In Cambodia, the situation is different from the more democratic Indonesia and the Philippines. Cambodia’s main political opposition party has been banned. Freedom House, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit, said the 2018 national elections were held “in a harshly repressive environment that offered voters no meaningful choice.” In this election, the country’s ruling party won all seats in the lower house.

Given Cambodia’s political orientation, it was no surprise to scholars when Hun Sen, its strong leader, said in a December speech that he hoped his son, Hun Manet, to graduate from West Point , would win elections to the national legislature and succeed him. around the year 2028.

“The father always wants his children to be in high positions,” Hun Sen said. “If they don’t want their children in high positions, they are lying to themselves.”

A Cambodian government spokesman, Phay Siphan, said Hun Manet himself was qualified and Cambodians would decide their leaders by election.

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Write to Jon Emont at [email protected]

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