The handing down of power from father to son sounds like it belongs to the age of kings and emperors. Yet dynasties continue to thrive in democracies as well as dictatorships, as Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, demonstrates. A 2018 study found that more than one in ten leaders worldwide came from families where a close relative was already involved in politics.
Now dynastic rule appears to be entrenching itself further in south-east Asia. After four decades in charge, and following another stage-managed election, Cambodia’s authoritarian leader Hun Sen this year handed over the prime ministership to his son, Hun Manet. The West Point-educated leader reportedly has a more diplomatic manner than his father, but there is no sign that he plans to diverge from him politically.
In Thailand, the contradictory forces driving politics were for years the popularity of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the royalist and military elite’s determination to thwart him. But after the foes forged a deal – thanks to the mutual threat from a youthful progressive party – his Puea Thai party is back in power and led by his daughter, Paetongtarn (another ally serves as prime minister). His sister, Yingluck, previously served as prime minister before being ousted by a coup and their brother-in-law very briefly held the role.
Ferdinand Marcos Jr became president of the Philippines last year following widespread disinformation which rebranded his father’s military dictatorship as a golden era, erasing the torture, extrajudicial killings and corruption. Six of the country’s last nine presidents have belonged to the Macapagal, Marcos and Aquino families. Another, Fidel Ramos, was the son of a leading politician, as was Rodrigo Duterte, the last president – whose daughter Sara is now vice-president.
The most striking development, however, is in Indonesia, the world’s third largest democracy. The 2014 victory of a political outsider – President Joko Widodo, widely known as Jokowi – was hailed as the shaking up of a slothful, corrupt and nepotistic system. “Becoming a president does not mean channeling power to my children,” he wrote pointedly in his autobiography.
But now he has reached his two-term limit and his son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, is running for the vice-presidency in next year’s election. The candidacy became possible when the chief justice – the president’s brother-in-law – ruled that under-40s can pursue the top positions if they have previously held local office.
The 36-year-old will run on the ticket of the president’s defence minister and former rival Prabowo Subianto – himself the son-in-law of the late dictator Suharto. The ex-general says he will continue Jokowi’s policies.
Supporters swallowed concerns over backsliding on democratic freedoms and minority rights thanks to the president’s investments in infrastructure and social spending, and especially fear of the alternative. This is another disappointment. Though the president says he stands above the fray, the widespread assumption is that he is trying to cement his influence. A return to dynastic politics only undermines his legacy.