After the monarchy: keeping political power in the family

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day – Canaletto, c.1746

Does hereditary rule ‘make sense’ in the 21st century? Images from Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee celebrations harked back to Canaletto’s famous painting of a Thames river pageant. While the pomp might still be there, three centuries apart, being a monarch is a far lonelier time. At a lunch hosted by the queen, there were no cousin kaisers or tsars to invite, just a rather odd and eclectic collection of Gulf sultans, the Japanese emperor and European queens of a similar generation, all invited by the virtue of being born into the right family.

The royal barge Gloriana at the head of the Diamond Jubilee river pageant – Andy Rain/EPA

But a world away from a family clustered on a processional river barge, hereditary-type political rule retains a certain durability. Hereditary succession is commonly associated with the out-and-out non-monarchical autocracies: the Kims of North Korea, the Assads of Syria, and up to recently the Gaddafis of Libya and Mubaraks of Egypt. But in between, in many of the countries that Freedom House might classify as being ‘partly free’, patterns of de facto dynastic rule still seem strikingly prevalent.

In the Philippines, the current president is the son of a former president (the Aquinos), having replaced a daughter of a former president (the Macapagals); the current president of Pakistan is the widow of a former prime minister, herself the daughter of a former prime minister and president (the Bhuttos); the president of Argentina is the widow of a former president (the Kirchners); on a short visit I made to India earlier in the year, TV coverage of upcoming regional polls were plastered with questions about the Gandhis; for over two decades the Bushes and Clintons have held high political office in the United States; the list goes on and on (Wikipedia has a handy little directory of political families here).

When Yingluck Shinawatra became Thailand’s prime minister last year, widely seen as a mark of her brother and former prime minister’s (Thaksin Shinawatra) popularity, a good longform Guardian piece searched for explanations for a specifically female succession in dynastic families: Women appear “when the men have already left the stage: often murdered by opponents, or otherwise incapacitated. Frequently, there is no male alternative – perhaps because sons are too young; perhaps because others are not up to the task”, or alternatively, that “The depiction of female leaders as innocents reflects enduring stereotypes about women in politics, but it can also be exploited by them. They can embody the promise of change and represent moral purity in comparison to their opponents.”

I don’t have any firm answers to the likelihood of when females might be more likely to gain power, but the larger question to me, still seems to be trying to explain the dynastic politics of modern-day democracies. (I don’t have any answers to this either). Somewhere in the mix are probably the cult-ness of personality, the strength of the party and governing machinery, and the advantages of a recognizable family ‘brand’ name. Nonetheless, it seems, beyond the world of monarchies, crowns and royal honorifics, hereditary political power is still going strong.

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