Dynastic successions in Asia present tough challenges

Dynastic succession may be a pattern, but leaders who feel a sense of entitlement are likely to fail

By Kishore Mahbubani  / 

Tue, Jan 08, 2013 - Page 9

To the extent that culture matters in politics, the recent spate of leadership changes in Northeast Asia suggests that Asian societies are more tolerant — if not supportive — of dynastic succession. South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979. China’s incoming president, Vice President Xi Jinping(習近平), is the son of Xi Zhongxun (習仲勛), a former vice premier. The new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers, and the son of a former foreign minister. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is the son and grandson of his two predecessors.

This pattern is not confined to Northeast Asia. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III is the son of former president Corazon Aquino. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) are also sons of former prime ministers.

In India, Rahul Gandhi is waiting in the wings, preparing to step into the shoes of his great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and father (Rajiv Gandhi), all former prime ministers.

In Pakistan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari — son of President Asif Ali Zardari and assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and grandson of former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — recently made his political debut.

Is dynastic succession becoming the norm throughout Asia?

There is no denying that a distinguished lineage gives political candidates an advantage over rivals.

However, it is also clear that having distinguished relatives is no guarantee of success.

Consider the checkered record of former Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Her father was a respected president; yet she could well be remembered as one of the country’s most corrupt.


The key issue is leaders’ attitude when they assume office. If they do so with a sense of entitlement from their lineage, they are likely to fail, as Arroyo did.

Fortunately for East Asia, most seem to approach power with a keen sense of duty and a commitment to strengthening their countries.

The term “princeling” is probably an unfair description of Xi. After all, he hardly can be said to have led a charmed life. After his father was purged by Mao Zedong (毛澤東), he went to work in the countryside, even before the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, experiencing firsthand all of the hardships that many of his generation endured.

Having risen to the top, he feels no sense of entitlement.

From all accounts, he feels an even greater sense of responsibility to prove that he gained his position on the basis of merit, not privilege.

Xi must also be aware that the children of the People’s Republic of China’s second generation of leaders face considerable public resentment, owing to their rapid accumulation of wealth. That explains his focus on combating corruption. If he fails to do so, he will be deemed a failure, and the Chinese Communist Party’s political monopoly may end sooner than anyone anticipates. Xi carries a huge burden on his shoulders.

So does Park Geun-hye. Like Xi, she had to struggle to reach the top. Her father lifted South Korea out of poverty and turned it into an economic tiger. However, his rule was also brutally repressive. To make matters worse for Park Geun-hye, many of her predecessors are perceived as failures. Two former South Korean presidents, Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan, were prosecuted; another, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide. There are also unkind rumors swirling around outgoing President Lee Myung-bak.

South Korea is clearly a successful country that is struggling to define itself. In theory, it should be celebrating its economic and cultural achievements. In practice, as a small country in a troubled neighborhood — and with North Korea a constant source of tension — it lives in existential anxiety.

Park Geun-hye, whose victory has not diminished her people’s ambivalent attitude toward her father, must know that healing the obvious divisions in South Korean society will not be easy.


The most difficult job is the one that awaits Rahul Gandhi. No single party can dominate Indian politics as the Congress Party has done since independence, implying a future of difficult and quarrelsome coalitions. In these circumstances, India needs, above all, decisive leadership. Yet, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rahul seems uncertain. He could have taken the job several years ago, if he had chosen to do so. His hesitation must reflect a deep anxiety.

Yet his reluctance is understandable. Again, dynastic succession does not ensure success.

For example, Razak has made an enormous effort to reunify his country with his “1Malaysia” message. Yet all the indications are that he will face an extremely hard-fought election this year. Though unlikely, his Barisan Nasional coalition could fall apart. No such prospect faced his predecessors.

In Japan, Abe is universally regarded to have performed badly in his first stint as prime minister between 2006 and 2007, despite his distinguished lineage. Now he takes over an even more troubled country with huge domestic and external challenges. Few are betting on his succeeding.

In short, Asia’s pattern of dynastic leadership does not render it immune from the challenges that the rest of the world faces.

As Asia creates the world’s largest middle class — projected to grow more than three-fold, from 500 million to 1.75 billion, by 2020 — it will also have to cope with demands for more competent and more accountable governments. In Asia today, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

Kishore Mahbubani is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Copyright: Project Syndicate