Although Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s victory in the Philippines sparked widespread nervousness, for many of us it was a reminder that ‘blood’ is still an important element in politics in the developing world.
Before becoming smug, it’s called “political dynasties” in the developed world. In the United States, it is the Kennedy, Bush and Clinton families.
In much of Southeast Asia, the idea of political blood is taken much more seriously. Despite the process of modernization, politics is still stuck in the old ways.
A brief look is disturbing. In the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III both succeeded their parents as Presidents of the Philippines. In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri is the daughter of the country’s first president, Sukarno. In Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra succeeded his brother Thaksin as Prime Minister. Singapore is ruled by Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew. Najib Razak is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein. And Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, is almost certain to retake Cambodia soon.
These are the most important. The truth is that thousands more in the region hold high political office because of their lineage.
Others are waiting: the son of Mahathir Mohamad, Mukhriz in Malaysia, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), Panthongtae Shinawatra, the only son of Thaksin, all have a chance to access to the highest office in their country. Hishammuddin Hussein, son of Malaysia’s third prime minister, is in the same boat. If they did not come from rich and powerful families, they are unlikely to rise to high office.
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Are they simply a natural product of political families? The argument is that if you grow up in that kind of home, you can’t escape your “calling”. Some even liken it to “national service”. The other argument is that since it’s a democracy, if the regime voted for them, that should be the end of the argument.
But the reality is that political dynasties are created, and often accompanied by formalities rooted in custom and traditional political culture. They have nothing to do with meritocracy. In Southeast Asia, it is often linked to “patron-clientism”, where a powerful person (boss) and a follower (client) mutually benefit from the relationship.
In a nutshell, why should you hold high office just because you were born with a certain surname or are lucky enough to be born into a particular family?
In almost all cases, members of the political dynasty use their superior wealth, connections, and education to elevate themselves. Along the way, they attract followers of their ancestors and retain them through patronage, sometimes called the “tailcoat effect”. I consider that political dynasties, in all societies, are bad in the long run and have negative consequences for political development.
First, political dynasties hinder meritocracy and fair competition. In rural Southeast Asia, it is extremely rare for a political unknown to beat a “name” in power for generations. This explains why the power bases of many political dynasties are often found in rural constituencies.
Second, political dynasties promote the idea of political elitism. In other words, the selection process is closed and the leaders are drawn from the same group of people.
Third, political dynasties are closely linked to economic power. The concentration of political power among a few families benefits a narrow set of economic interests. This process institutionalizes economic and income inequality and creates a culture in which “relationships” become the most important criterion for everything. These political families are able to legally claim much of the state’s resources through their control of the political system, leaving the country vulnerable to corrupt practices.
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However, it seems that the hold of political dynasties on Southeast Asian politics remains unshakeable. Some countries have “term limits” to stop political dynasties, but they are completely ineffective in practice. For example, nothing prevents a brother or sister from the same political family from succeeding each other.
Will social networks and the Internet change the situation? It is very unlikely. The most important criterion for political change is probably education, that is, an educational system that teaches citizens to be critical and to think rationally.
But in Southeast Asia, public education is about producing citizens who obey authority – in bureaucratic parlance they are called “loyal” or “patriotic” citizens.
So, should we be surprised by the victory of Bong-Bong Marcos? Not the least. There will be similar victories by people with very familiar names in the future.