Will Elected Political Dynasties Emerge in Bhutan?
By Tshering Cigay Dorji (Ph.D)
Published in Drukpa, November 2010 Issue on Politics
Elected political dynasties are common in democracies around the world: the Kennedys and the Bushes of the USA, the Aquinos of the Phillipines, the Nehru-Gandhis of India, the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Bandaranaikes of Sri Lanka, and the Koiralas of Nepal. Are such political dynasties a boon or a curse? What factors lead to the formation of political dynasties? Will elected political dynasties appear in democratic Bhutan too? tshering cigay dorji (Ph.D) explores these questions
Some argue that certain families are gifted with aptitude and talent for public offi ce and that their hold on power is not due to their relatives occupying positions of authority. But the popular feeling as portrayed by the media is that political dynasties are self-perpetuating and somewhat undemocratic.
A study on political dynasties in the US published by Ernesto Dal Bo and others in the Review of Economic Studies in 2009 concluded that political power in the United States is “selfperpetuating, and that the presence of political dynasties does not merely refl ect differences in ability across families.” They found that legislators who enjoy longer tenures are signifi – cantly more likely to have relatives entering Congress later. They also found that the Senate has a greater share of dynastic politicians than the House (13.5% versus 7.7%) and this difference persists (see Figure 1).
In Japan too, political dynasties are a common feature of the political landscape. As a student there from 2005 to 2010, I learnt that fi ve of the six prime ministers that held offi ce were from powerful political families.
Junichiro Koizumi, the 56th PM, was a third-generation politician. His father, Junya Koizumi, was director general of the Japan Defense Agency and a member of the Diet (Japanese Parliament). His grandfather, Koizumi Matajiro, was Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. The 57th PM, Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians. Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi, is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, PM of Japan from 1957 to 1960. The 58th PM Yasuo Fukuda’s father, Takeo Fukuda, was PM from 1976 to 1978. The 59th PM, Taro Aso’s mother was former PM Shigeru Yoshida’s daughter, and his current wife is the third daughter of another former PM, Zenko Suzuki. During Aso’s premiership, it was also said that four of 18 Cabinet posts had gone to politicians with fathers or grandfathers who were PMs, and ten cabinet ministers were the children of former Liberal Democratic Party parliamentarians.
The 60th PM, Yukio Hatoyama’s paternal great-grandfather, Kazuo Hatoyama, was speaker of the House of Representatives of the Diet of Japan from 1896 to 1897 and his paternal grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, served as PM in addition to being a founder and the first President of the Liberal Democratic Party in 1956. His father, Iichiro Hatoyama, served as Foreign Minister.
As the above examples from the US and Japan show, political dynasties exist even in industrialized nations. However, there is some difference between the political dynasties that exist in countries where the rule of law and open competition are well established, and those countries where the rule of law is weaker. A column by Isagani Cruz in the Philippine daily, Inquirer, mentions that “certain families so controlled their constituents – by guns or gold or, in some cases, merit – as to be able to retain political power, to the exclusion of other candidates. By transferring elective positions among themselves, from one relative to another, often regardless of qualifications, they are able to prevent other citizens, including the more qualified ones, from enjoying equal access to opportunities for public service.”
Realizing this to be happening, the Republic of the Philippines has kept a provision for legislation to prohibit political dynasties in their constitution. Section 26 of Article II says, “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” However, there have been no efforts made by Congress to legislate on this constitutional provision so far. The provision has remained a toothless tiger.
Last June, Senator Benigno Aquino III was elected to become the 15th President of Phillipines. Aquino is a fourth-generation politician. His great-grandfather, Servillano “Mianong” Aquino, served as a delegate to the Malolos Congress. His grandfather, Benigno Aquino Sr., held several legislative positions from 1919-44. And his parents were former President Corazon Aquino and former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. He replaced the 14th President, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is herself a daughter of the 9th President, Diosdado Macapagal.
Our nook of the woods has seen its fair share of political dynasties. Nepal’s late PM G.P. Koirala’s two other brothers were PMs too. In Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga was the daughter of two former PMs. Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina is daughter of President Mujibur Rahman, and former PM Khaleda Zia, is widow of President Ziaur Rahman. India’s Nehru family now spans four generations. Late Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. After her assassination, her 22-year old son, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto was appointed chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party.
What factors lead to the emergence of political dynasties? It may be difficult to unravel the complex interplay of various causes and conditions, but three major factors given in an IPS article titled Political Dynasties Know No Boundaries seem to be convincing:
“First, access to the political system in most countries is costly in terms of money and only those who can afford the time, money, resources and have the requisite connections find an entry into what is often an exclusive if not closed club.
“Then there are those who are respected for rendering services to their country during crucial periods, such as an independence struggle — hence, their legitimacy is unquestioned and widely accepted.
“Finally, there are those whose leadership is etched in the popular imagination, and for people to identify with such a charismatic leader comes almost automatically.”
In this light, does it seem likely that elected political dynasties will crop up in Bhutan too? Will they arise also at the level of local governments, as in major municipalities in the Philippines where the lucrative position of mayor is held by political dynasties?
Bhutanese attach a lot of importance to ancestry when aspiring for high positions in public offi ce, though many people from humble backgrounds have risen to high positions in the civil service in the past. This is refl ected in sayings such as Pha zang gi bu, ghi zang gi shub (Son of a noble father, sheath of a fi ne sword) and Zhenm thog khar kayn, chhu yang jye gi jay (Put a commoner in high position and he will even measure water with a jye, a container for measuring grain). So it was not rare for political candidates to evoke their noble ancestry, real or imagined, during the 2008 elections. Going by this bent in the Bhutanese psyche, coupled with the cost of politicking, it seems likely that we too will have elected political dynasties in the future at the central and the local levels.
However, political dynasties are not inherently nocuous. Their hold on power may be justifi ed as long as it is gained through fair and open competition, and without using undue advantage of connections, as unlikely as that possibility seems.
The good news for us here in Bhutan is that political dynasties will not be able to misuse their power as much as their counterparts in other countries, thanks to the unique system of government enshrined in our constitution. Our beloved King provides the required check and balance, and looks after the welfare of the weak and the underprivileged. And no dynasty, however infl uential, can override the authority of the Druk Gyalpo.