South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye has joined a long list of Asian women whose rise to power has, to varying degrees, been founded on the political legacy of a male sibling, father or husband.
Park, who will become the country’s first female president in February after her historic election win on Wednesday, is the daughter of former military ruler Park Chung-hee.
Despite carving out an independent political career since winning a national assembly seat in 1998, Park Geun-hye is, for many South Koreans, still largely defined in relation to her father and his authoritarian 1961 to 1979 rule.
The same is true of a number of prominent Asian women leaders — past and present — who took office or came to prominence under a male shadow and then, in some cases, went on to create major political legacies of their own.
The list includes Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, former Philippine president Corazon Aquino and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
As with Park Geun-hye, their elevation to high office was often seen as a sign of female empowerment in Asia’s largely male-dominated politics, but the reality is “far more complex,” former Asia Society president Vishakha N. Desai said.
“It is fair to say that in many Asian societies, hierarchical by nature, a powerful family connection can actually trump the gender constraints,” Desai wrote in an article for the society’s Web site.
Yingluck, aged 45 and elected last year as the first Thai female prime minister and the youngest in more than six decades, is seen by critics as a puppet for her brother, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who once described her as his “clone.”
Aquino, a self-proclaimed “plain housewife,” emerged as a political force after the assassination in 1983 of her husband and lawmaker Benigno Aquino Jr and became the nation’s first female president three years later.
Park Geun-hye stands out in being a seasoned and respected politician and Desai said that, in her case, her father’s split image as economic savior and ruthless dictator had been both a boon and a burden.
Jung Mi-ae, a professor at Kookmin University, also said that after Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979, Park Geun-hye was left to build her own political brand alone.
Park Geun-hye’s mother was murdered five years before her father, and she has never married or had children.
“There’s still a question mark over how Park [Geun-hye] will fare as a leader, but she’s not some figurehead who came to power solely because of her father, either,” Jung said.
Park Geun-hye enjoys solid support among older conservative Koreans who admired her father, but exit polls from Wednesday’s ballot suggest she was also favored by more than 30 percent of voters in their 20s or 30s.
“The fact that she received considerable support from young voters with little memory of, or love for, the late Park [Chung-hee] shows that she has established a certain political brand of her own,” Jung said.
Park Geun-hye’s election marks a historic breakthrough for a traditionally Confucian country whose political and commercial fields are dominated by men, in both the private and public sectors.
Women occupy just 15 percent of seats in parliament and only 12 percent of managerial positions at 1,500 major firms. They also earn nearly 40 percent less than men — the biggest pay gap among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development group of nations.
Whether a female president will herald any significant gender power shift remains to be seen and neither Park Geun-hye nor her ruling conservative party has a particularly good record on women’s rights.
Park Geun-hye made a strong play for women’s votes in her campaign, a tactic that some found shallow and opportunistic.
Kim Eun-ju, executive director of the Center for Korean Women and Politics, called Park Geun-hye a female political leader “only in biological terms,” saying she had shown little interest in promoting women’s rights in her 15 years in politics.
“Here she follows in the footsteps of many of her Asian predecessors who were not necessarily supportive of women’s rights or equality, especially in their first terms,” Desai said.