Beware the rise of dynasties, cronies and strongmen

The 2022 Philippine elections result again underlines the stranglehold that dynasties and clans have on this Asean member country. Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr is the new president, replacing Rodrigo Duterte whose six-year term ended on June 30.

(FMT) – His father was the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who fled his country in 1986 when the people rose up against his regime.

Today, Marcos Jr is president, his sister Imee is a senator and his son Ferdinand Alexander won election to Congress representing Ilocos Norte, the family’s stronghold. The president’s cousin Martin Romualdez is poised to be the next house speaker.

New vice-president Sara Duterte’s father is the outgoing president. Her brother Sebastian succeeds her as Davao mayor while another brother, Paolo, has won a seat in the House of Representatives. Outgoing president Duterte was once Davao mayor too, and his father had earlier served as governor of Davao province.

As I said in my earlier column, political dynasties are in control not just at the national level, but also at the village or barangay level. One family, for instance, won all the top executive and all the three legislative seats in the island province of Masbate in the just-concluded elections.

Although dynastic successions occur in most parts of the world, they are probably not as entrenched as they are in the Philippines, especially at the top level.

For instance, Gloria Arroyo, who served as president from 2001 to 2010 (including three years of Joseph Estrada’s term after he was overthrown by a people’s uprising), was the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal who served as president from 1961 to 1965.

In several other Asean nations too, we’ve seen children taking after the father or mother. Let me state here that a son or daughter following their father or mother is not necessarily bad if they are honest and work for the people. A problem arises, however, when he or she becomes corrupt or dictatorial.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi was de facto leader as state counsellor from 2015 to 2021 before being deposed by the military and arrested. Her father Aung San is considered the founding leader of modern Burma (now Myanmar).

Singapore is headed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, the island republic’s first prime minister.

In Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri – the daughter of Sukarno, the country’s first president – was president from 2001 to 2004. In 2020, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the 32-year-old son of Indonesian President Joko Widodo was elected mayor of Surakarta, a post held much earlier by his father. It’s likely he will make an attempt for the presidency sometime in the future.

Looking wider, we have Benazir Bhutto taking on the mantle of prime minister years after her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto led that nation. Benazir’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the current foreign minister, is waiting in the wings and could one day be president.

In India, Indira Gandhi, the daughter of first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and her son Rajiv Gandhi, served as prime ministers. Indira’s grandson Rahul, now leading the opposition, may get a shot at that post.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding leader.

I’ve only mentioned parents and children but there are also many cases of siblings holding the mantle of leader at different times or spouses taking up leadership after the death of their husband or wife.

One study, published in the journal Historical Social Research in December 2018, showed that, on average, one in 10 world leaders were from households with political ties.

In Malaysia, sixth prime minister Najib Razak, who is appealing a conviction and jail sentence for abuse of power and corruption-related offences, is the son of second prime minister Razak Hussein.

Third prime minister Hussein Onn’s son, Hishammuddin, is currently defence minister and at 61 years of age is politically young enough to get a shot at the top post in the near future. His grandfather was the respected Onn Jaafar, one of the founders of Umno.

Many Malaysians believe fourth and seventh prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been opening up avenues for son Mukhriz to rise to the top. Bersatu, and now Pejuang, both of which he formed are seen as vehicles to give a lift to the young politician.

Whether opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim will become prime minister remains uncertain but his MP daughter Nurul Izzah is seen by many voters as a potential prime minister. Anwar’s wife Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail served as deputy prime minister under Mahathir before the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed in February 2020. Anwar, of course, was deputy prime minister under Mahathir 1.0.

Silently working his way up is another prime minister hopeful – Khairy Jamaluddin. The current health minister is the son-in-law of fifth prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang is grooming his son Muhammad Khalil, an assemblyman, for bigger things but he is not seen as a possible future prime minister.

Former opposition leader Lim Kit Siang’s son Guan Eng, who is currently facing corruption charges, has served as Penang chief minister and federal finance minister. Kit Siang’s daughter Lim Hui Ying is a senator.

At lower levels too we find families involved in politics and holding various posts at divisional and branch levels. Some state and divisional leaders, especially in Umno, hold significant power.

Umno warlords can cause considerable problems to any Umno leader at the national level, even if he is prime minister. Woe betide any Umno president who doesn’t select a divisional leader to contest for seats in state assemblies or Parliament or assist him in some way.

Heads of Umno divisions where an MCA or MIC candidate stands for Parliament have to be appeased too. Often, those not picked for elections are made senators or given special posts with handsome remuneration, or made chairman of government-linked companies or given lucrative contracts.

Without the support of these warlords, no Umno president, who, in the past, was always also the prime minister, can operate in peace. And of course, Umno leaders have always lamented that the party suffers from “money politics”, an euphemism for corruption.

Umno presidents were and are the biggest warlords because they control people and resources such as money. As prime minister, they also control the entire administration, including government agencies and finances. This has led to strongman politics, such as that during the first stint of Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Political dynasties and strongman leaderships are perpetuated by the distribution of largesse – whether money, titles, positions or business opportunities. Once a family or clan or a strong leader takes power, they are likely to use all means to consolidate and remain in power.

This facilitates, among other things, cronyism and corruption, both of which are dragging Malaysia down. One example of cronyism is where you appoint those who helped you or whose support you need to top positions in government-linked companies. Another is where you dish out contracts to those who help you remain in power or who make handsome donations during elections.

Malaysian voters should not allow the rise of dynasties, warlords, cronyism or a strongman to reach the level it has in the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Yes, Sri Lanka, which has gone bankrupt due to a combination of cronyism, supremacist policies, and dynastic and strongman politics, should be a lesson for us.

Just before it collapsed in crisis, Sri Lanka’s president, prime minister and four Cabinet ministers were all from the same clan; relatives and friends were in important positions in various branches of government and the corporate sector; and cronies enjoyed fat contracts and monopolies.

And the people of Sri Lanka are suffering because they did not check the slide when they could.

Part 1: Like Malaysia, poor are manipulated, elites prosper in Philippine polls