Home / Politics / News /  In Southeast Asia, politics are increasingly a family affair

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

In the Philippines, the leading candidates for president and vice president in next year’s elections are both scions of powerful political dynasties linked to human-rights abuses. In neighboring Indonesia, the president who upended the country’s politics by winning election despite a humble family background recently saw both 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 hopes his son will succeed him, and that only assassination or untimely death could alter this “political direction."

The prevalence of dynasties reflects the great power that individual families wield in a fast-growing region of the world that is nonetheless 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, an associate professor at Polytechnic University of the Philippines. “In that environment it’s very easy for political dynasties to thrive."

Academics and watchdog groups say dynasties can make governance worse, with unqualified candidates harnessing powerful relatives’ support to win power, crowding out the emergence of competent grass roots leaders. There are also dynasties in other countries, including wealthy western democracies, such as the U.S., 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, by contrast, 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 polls for vice president, which is elected separately.

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

Dynasties are so prevalent that Mr. Mendoza’s team even coined terms to distinguish between dynasties where several family members occupy positions of government simultaneously—so-called fat dynasties—and dynasties where power is passed down to younger generations sequentially—so-called thin dynasties. Mr. Mendoza said the nation’s “fat dynasties" are especially pernicious because relatives in power at the same time can bend state institutions to serve family interests, including punishing political rivals.

The Philippines constitution was designed as a check on family rule. It was ratified in 1987, a year after a popular movement succeeded in ousting Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines dictator who is the father of today’s leading presidential candidate. The constitution formally prohibits political dynasties but requires lawmakers to take action to bring the ban into force. Over the years bills have been introduced to restrict family control of key offices but none has made it into law, which scholars say is in part because a large share of members of the legislature are themselves dynastic scions.

In recent years, the Dutertes have expanded their influence far beyond their southern Philippines base, and now play a towering role in the nation’s politics. Ms. Duterte-Carpio, a vice-presidential candidate, currently serves as mayor of Davao City, in the southern Philippines, which was run for over two decades by her charismatic father, Rodrigo Duterte, before he became president. When Ms. Duterte-Carpio withdrew her name for re-election as mayor in November to run for vice president, she announced that her brother, Sebastian Duterte, the current Davao City vice mayor, would campaign to succeed her. Another brother, Paolo Duterte, is a member of the Philippines House of Representatives.

Neighboring Indonesia has also contended with its own powerful families, like the Sukarno and Suharto clans, but in recent years seemed to be making progress reining them in. In 2014, Joko Widodo, a plain-speaking former furniture dealer and mayor, outmaneuvered dynastic hopefuls when he won the presidency with a promise of competent governance. Shortly after Mr. Widodo’s election, Indonesia’s government changed election regulations to prohibit close family members from succeeding their relatives in positions like governor or mayor.

But Indonesia’s constitutional court struck down the provision in 2015, saying it violated the rights of family members to run for office. In the following years, the number of dynastic candidates surged in Indonesia, according to Yoes Kenawas, an Indonesian Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University who studies his country’s political dynasties. By his count, in 2013 there were 39 dynastic politicians occupying subnational administrative positions like regent, mayor, and governor. That number, he said, rose to 117 by 2018. “We are heading towards the Philippines’ trajectory," Mr. Kenawas said.

Still, Mr. Widodo came off as quite different from the eminent and sometimes haughty families that had previously held the presidency. In an Instagram post in 2018, Mr. Widodo said he felt blessed to have children who were independent, and described their seemingly humble careers: One sells coffee, another dessert pancakes, a third, banana fritters. “I don’t have to think any more about where they will find work or what their profession will be," he wrote in the post.

The answer—at least for some relatives—turned out to be in politics. Last year, his eldest son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, 34, the pancake seller, ran and won election as mayor of Solo, a midsize city in central Java that his father had also governed. A son-in-law, Bobby Nasution, won election as mayor of Medan, a large city on the island of Sumatra. Mr. Widodo told local media at the time that it was up to voters to decide who they wanted to lead them, and that he has never pushed his children to follow him into politics. Still, some Indonesian civil-society groups expressed concern, noting that Mr. Widodo’s son faced little political opposition, competing against a largely unknown tailor who received less than 15% of the vote.

“Creating a dynasty is actually a rational choice" for politicians seeking to prolong their time in power but facing term limits, said Mr. Kenawas. Under Indonesian law Mr. Widodo cannot run for re-election in 2024, when he will have served 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 nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., said the 2018 national elections were held “in a severely repressive environment that offered voters no meaningful choice." In that election, the country’s ruling party won every lower house seat.

Given Cambodia’s political direction, it wasn’t a surprise to scholars when Hun Sen, its strongman ruler, said in a December speech that he hopes his son, Hun Manet, a West Point graduate, would win election to the national legislature and succeed him around the year 2028.

“The father always wants his children to hold high positions," said Mr. Hun Sen. “If they do not want their children to hold high positions, they are lying to themselves."

A spokesman for Cambodia’s government, Phay Siphan, said Hun Manet was well-qualified in his own right, and Cambodians will decide their leaders by election.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.
Recommended For You
Edit Profile
Get alerts on WhatsApp
Set Preferences My ReadsFeedbackRedeem a Gift CardLogout