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Born to rule? The pitfalls of political dynasties

When Barbara Bush complains about dominant political families, she should know. The world must move beyond rule by bloodlines and a belief in inherited traits.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / January 21, 2014

Rahul Gandhi (front left), the heir to India's Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, announced last week he will not run for office. His mother, Congress party President Sonia Gandhi (center left) stands next to outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, fifth from right.

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Barbara Bush is the wife of one American president, the mother of another – and perhaps another, assuming her son Jeb tries to win the White House. So when the former first lady now calls it “silly” for the United States to view only a few families as offering good candidates, she should know.

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“I think that the Kennedys, Clintons, Bushes – there are just more families than that,” she said in a C-SPAN interview that aired Monday.

Her criticism could be about more than the popular attraction toward a few recognized names in politics. It may reflect the wary eye worldwide against political families, or dynasties that presume a child, a spouse, or other relative is qualified for office simply because of a brand name or a belief in inherited traits through bloodlines.

Almost every nation, not just the US, grapples with a lingering faith in political lineages, often realizing at some point that the granting of power by birthright or marriage comes with risks.

For one, dynasties concentrate power, sometimes in the hands of an heir with limited experience or skill. They are personality based, putting stock in gene pools rather than talent pools, or in pedigree more than proficiency. Their dominance in networking and fundraising can prevent more qualified people from seeking a leadership post.

In India last week, Rahul Gandhi, who is the fourth generation of India’s dominant political family, announced he would not run for prime minister. Perhaps his hesitancy was based on the fact that young people don’t venerate his family name as in previous decades, having become better educated to appreciate that democracy must be run as a meritocracy, not an aristocracy.

In the Philippines, a movement is afoot to pass a law that would enforce a constitutional provision against political dynasties. The current president is the son of a former one, Corazon Aquino, and family ties still bind many of those in the elected elite.

In the Middle East, the 2011 Arab Spring spread in part over resentment toward leaders who choose a son to succeed them. Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was grooming his son, Gamal, to replace him. In Syria, a second Assad in power helped spark a democracy movement, and now a civil war.

North Korea is on its third Kim as dictator, with widespread disdain over this one’s ability to rule. Cuba is on its second Castro. Pakistan has five political families. Bangladesh has two women from political families vying for top office in a long feud that is eroding democracy.

In China, the fact that several top leaders in the ruling Communist Party are “princelings,” or the sons of former top officials, is a reminder to the masses of how much family favoritism still plays out in government.

Canada has a new Trudeau on the political scene, causing concern that the son may be riding on his father’s legacy. In the US, more than two dozen lawmakers in Congress come from political families.

Personality-based rule, such as a powerful monarchy, can prevent people from fully embracing democracy. Thailand’s current anti-democracy protests, for example, are not only about the elected Shinawatra dynasty but may be driven by the notion that the current king may save the day and intervene in the protests, as he has in the past.

The various types of hereditary rule do not always come with a downside. Jerry Brown has proved his own as a Democrat in California, perhaps outshining his father as governor. Often growing up in politics is a leg up in learning leadership. Some scholars even contend that an elected second-generation politician may know how to avoid extreme actions. But that is not always the case.

As the world moves steadily toward equality and rule of law in governance, it must also move against nepotistic privilege. Succession in power is best done by popular choice, not family brand.

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