Political Dynasties and Their Discontents

Contrary to what you might expect, Europe is actually the continent with the fewest dynasts in power.

Political dynasties have always been a big part of human civilization and today is no exception.

In the United States, of course, the rise of Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) was at least partially a reaction to the dynastic, Clinton-versus-Bush election that only last year most Americans were expecting to get.

Among other things, Jeb Bush’s candidacy split the non-evangelical portion of the Republican establishment in two, preventing it from coalescing around Marco Rubio early on and thus leaving an opening for Trump to force his way into. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, meanwhile, may even leave the door open for Trump to become president, however unlikely and unappealing that may be.


North of the border, Canada has just elected Justin Trudeau as its prime minister, the son of Pierre Trudeau who was prime minister for fifteen years during the late 1960s, 1970s and first half of the 1980s. One of Trudeau’s two opponents in the election had been New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, whose ancestors include the first and ninth premiers of the province of Quebec.


South of the border, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto (who came to power in 2013) “is the nephew of two former governors of the State of México (the state in which Mexico City is located, which is nearly twice as populous as any other state in the country, even without counting the adjacent Distrito Federal): on his mother’s side, Arturo Montiel, on his father’s, Alfredo del Mazo González.”


In China, the current general secretary, Xi Jinping, who is thought to have amassed more personal power than any Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong, is the first to come from the “princeling” class. He is the son of a prominent political figure, Xi Zhongxun, from the first generation of the Communist Party leadership. This distinguishes him from the other general secretaries in the Communist era, including Mao, whose parents were not prominent politicians and in some cases were actually quite poor.

Other top members of the current Chinese leadership are also “princelings”, most notably Yu Zhengsheng, who is the fourth-ranked politician on the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee (which is generally considered to be China’s top political body), and Wang Qishan, who is ranked sixth on the Politburo Standing Committee and may be one of the most powerful figures in China at the moment as he has been leading Xi Jinping’s now-infamous anti-corruption campaign. Wang is a princeling by marriage only: his wife is the daughter of Yao Yilin, who was a former Politburo Standing Committee member in the Communist Party.


In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is the most powerful politician the country has seen in at least a generation as well. He too comes from a political dynasty. According to Wikipedia, his grandfather, Kan Abe, and father, Shintaro Abe, were both politicians. Abe’s mother, Yoko Kishi, is the daughter of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960. Kishi had been a member of the Tōjō Cabinet during the Second World War.

South Korea

Meanwhile the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of South Korea’s third president, Park Chung-hee. (And in North Korea, of course, the Kim family’s rule is now into its third generation.)


In Singapore, the prime minister since 2004 has been Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Singapore’s modern founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who served from 1959 all the way to 1990.


In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his often fanatically right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party became in 2014 the first party in over three decades to win a majority government in a national election. Modi is not from a political dynasty himself, rather he is the reaction to the modern world’s most prominent political family of all: the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

The Guardian wrote in 2007 that “the Nehru-Gandhi brand has no peer in the world — a member of the family has been in charge of India for forty of the sixty years since independence.” The dynasty (which by the way is not related to the Gandhi) began with Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-British era prime minister from 1947-1964, who was himself the son and nephew of significant political figures in pre-independence India. It then continued with Jawaharlal’s only daughter, Indira Gandhi (née Nehru), who was India’s prime minister from 1966-1977 and from 1980-1984, but was assassinated in 1984 by two of her own Sikh bodyguards in the wake of Operation Blue Star.

The dynasty was then followed by Indira’s sons, Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister from 1984-1989 before being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers in 1991, and Sanjay Gandhi, who was expected to become prime minister but was instead killed in a plane crash. Rajiv’s wife, Sonia Gandhi, is the leader of India’s powerful Congress Party and the mother of Rahul Gandhi, who lost to Modi’s BJP in 2014 but still finished with more parliamentary seats and far more votes than any other candidate in the election. Sonia likely would have run for prime minister herself, but cannot because she was born in Italy.

(Sanjay’s wife, Maneka Gandhi, on the other hand, has jumped ship from the historically Nehru-Gandhi-dominated Congress Party and joined the BJP instead; she is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led government. Maneka’s son, Varun, has also gone over to the BJP, serving as the youngest national secretary in the history of the party and a member of the country’s parliament. However, Maneka and Varun both remain less prominent than the Congress side of the family, which is led by Maneka’s sister-in-law, Sonia, and Varun’s first cousin, Rahul).

Arguably, frustration with the Gandhis directly paved the way for Modi (a man who was not even allowed to enter the United States prior to becoming president; he was the only person ever to be blocked from getting a American visa because of presiding over “severe violations of religious freedom”), just as frustrations with the Clintons and Bushes could conceivably allow for a President Trump.


You may have also heard about the election of the Philippines’ ridiculous new president, Rodrigo Duterte, last week. Rodrigo’s father, Vicente, was a provincial governor of Davao province and a mayor of Cebu, one of the largest cities in the country. Rodrigo’s cousin was also a mayor of Cebu, in the 1980s.

The Dutertes are hardly alone in their political dynasticism: according to Public Radio International, “in the Philippines, elections in 2016 will be dominated by dynasties. About two-thirds of the outgoing Congress are heirs of political families. The outgoing president is the son of Corazon Aquino, who led the uprising against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos after Marcos had her husband whacked for being a prominent political opponent. But the Marcos clan is back in the picture, with Ferdinand’s wife, son, daughter and nephew all running for different offices. Also running is the grandson of another president.”


In Thailand too there has been a political reaction against a political family, namely the family of Thaksin Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being exiled by a military coup) and his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra (who was prime minister from 2011 to 2014 before being removed by decree of the Constitutional Court during the Thai political crisis in 2013-2014).

According to Wikipedia, the father of Thaksin and Yingluck was a member of parliament for Chiang Mai. The Shinawatras are descendant of a former monarch of Chiang Mai through her grandmother, Princess Chanthip na Chiangmai (great-great-granddaughter of King Thammalangka of Chiang Mai).


Europe, at least in contrast to Asia, does not have many political dynasties at the moment. This is perhaps in part because European political history was reset to a certain degree following the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s leading politicians, including Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, do not come from political dynasties. Neither does Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, (though his ancestors were extremely wealthy) or France’s President Francois Hollande. Italian prime minister Mattio Renzi’s was a municipal councilor, admittedly, but that does not really count. (Angela Merkel’s grandfather was similarly a local politician in Danzig.) Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s family was fairly prominent, on the other hand.

That said, Europe is far from dynasty-free. According to The Economist, “in Europe family power is one reason why politics seems like a closed shop. 57 of the 650 members of the recently dissolved British Parliament are related to current or former MPs. François Hollande, France’s president, has four children with Ségolène Royal, who ran for the presidency in 2007. Three generations of Le Pens are squabbling over their insurgent party, the Front national. Belgium’s prime minister is the son of a former foreign minister and European commissioner. The names Papandreou and Karamanlis still count for something in Greece.”


The Arab world remains full of political dynasties and reactions against dynasties, in contrast.

In Syria, both of these factors can be seen at the same time, as the civil war threatens to unseat Bashar al-Assad, son of thirty-year ruler Hafez al-Assad. (Bashar’s brother, Bassel, was initially supposed to take over from his father, but died in a car accident in 1994.)


In Egypt, meanwhile, the military government of Abdul Fatah Sisi is in some ways a response to the presumed attempt by an elderly Hosni Mubarak (diagnosed with stomach cancer in the same year he was deposed) to pass on power to his son Gamal, who had not served in the Egyptian military as Hosni Mubarak and previous rulers Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser had done.

Saudi Arabia

In Saudi Arabia, which is by far the largest Arab economy, a half-shift from one Saudi political dynasty to another may just be getting under way. Thus far in the history of the modern Saudi state (beginning around 1930), the country has been ruled either by founder Abdulaziz ibn Saud or else by one of his 45 or so sons, six of whom have become king. Most recently King Salman, who took the throne in January of 2015.

Last year, however, Salman removed his half-brother Muqrin (another son of Abdulaziz) from the office of crown prince, replacing Muqrin with their nephew, Muhammad bin Nayef, who would become the first king of the next generation of Saudi royals if he ever takes over.

He may never take over, though: many people now believe that is Salman’s own son, Mohammad bin Salman, who is the deputy crown prince and defense minister, who is the likeliest to become the next king when Salman (who is eighty years old) steps down or passes away, even though deputy crown prince is formally a lower-ranking position than crown prince — and even though Mohammad bin Salman is only thirty years old, which would be an extremely young age for a modern Saudi king.

If Mohammad bin Salman does become king over another prince like Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia could in effect be moving from a dynasty of Abdulaziz to a dynasty of Salman. There are now fears that the political situation in the country could become quite messy if the other branches of the huge Saudi royal family try to avoid becoming sidelined from power as a result.


Across the Gulf, in Iran, dynasties are not too big a factor within the current religious government. Recently the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini even was blocked from participating in elections. One big exception to this, however, is the powerful Larijani family, made up of five brothers in key positions in the government. It includes Ali Larijani, who is the speaker of the parliament and a former member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and Sadeq Larijania, Iran’s chief justice.


A number of leaders in Israel hail from political families as well. Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu — who has now spent more time as prime minister (from 1996-1999 and again since 2009) than any politician in Israel’s history (apart from Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, who Netanyahu will soon overtake) — is the son of Benzion Netanyahu. Benzion was a professor of history at Cornell University, an influential Zionist activist and magazine editor and personal secretary to one of Israel’s most prominent founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

Bibi is also the younger brother of Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the unit commander of and only person to be killed during the famous Operation Entebbe raid in 1976, when 100 or so Israeli commandos rescued 102 hostages of a Palestinian airplane hijacking (compared to three hostages killed) from where they were being held in Idi Amin-era Uganda more than 3000 kilometers south of Israel, and returned them safely to their homes in Israel and France.

Israel’s Labor Party leader Issac “Bougie” Herzog, meanwhile, who won more than twice as many votes as any other Jewish party apart from Netanyahu’s Likud in the most recent elections of 2015, is, according to Wikipedia, the son of General Chaim Herzog, who was the sixth president of Israel from 1983 to 1993, and the grandson of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, was the first chief rabbi of Ireland from 1922 to 1935 and Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1936 to 1959.

The next-largest Jewish political party after Labor and Likud is the Yesh Atid Party, led by Yair Lapid. Lapid is a former news anchor who is the son of Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, a former government minister, parliamentary leader of the opposition as recently as 2005 and radio and television personality.


Leaving the Middle East, Brazil’s Aécio Neves, who in late 2014 very narrowly lost a presidential election to Dilma Rousseff (who may now be on the verge of being impeached herself), is the grandson of Tancredo Neves, who would have been president of Brazil in 1985 if he had not passed away before taking office. Roussef and her influential predecessor, Lula da Silva, are not from prominent political families, however.


In Peru, the country is in the midst of a presidential election, which is a two-round system that began in April and will end on June 5. Its leading candidate is former first lady Keiko Fujimori, a daughter of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori. Alberto exiled himself to Japan following corruption and human rights violation scandals at the end of his ten years in power in 2000, but was later arrested in Chile in 2005 and is now serving a prison sentence back in Peru.


Argentina, finally, has just recently ended sixteen consecutive years of being presided over by a Kirchner, first by Nestor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007 and then by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner from 2007 until the end of 2015.

The Kirchners were Peronists, a political movement of sorts (which has often been called authoritarian) named for another power couple, Juan Perón (president from 1946-1955) and his second wife, Eva Perón, who was a significant political figure in her own right and nearly became vice president. (In addition to this, Juan’s third wife, Isabel Martínez de Perón, was president of Argentina from 1974 to 1976.) The incoming Argentine president, Mauricio Macri, who is replacing the Kirchners, does not come from a political dynasty, however. His father was just a humble business tycoon.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, May 27, 2016.