Paetongtarn Shinawatra, youngest daughter of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, speaks during the Pheu Thai party's annual meeting in Bangkok on April 24, 2022. (Photo: Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)

Political Succession in Southeast Asia: When Dynasty Might Mean Destiny

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Some of the region’s political scions will be rising through the ranks in future elections, but it is not all smooth sailing in politics even if one is born with a silver spoon.

The election of the Philippines’ President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in June this year, notwithstanding his father’s chequered legacy, suggests that dynastic politics remains a salient force in Southeast Asia’s political transitions.

Admittedly, Bongbong’s critics have suggested that he and diehard Marcos loyalists whitewashed Marcos Sr.’s widely reported misdeeds (such as unpaid income and estate taxes and alleged corruption) through a social media “disinformation” campaign.

However, Bongbong is off to a seemingly strong start. Prior to securing the presidency, he served more than two decades at various levels of government, as governor, representative, senator, and agriculture minister. His older sister Senator Imee was previously representative and governor of Ilocos Norte, a Marcos stronghold.    

While name recognition and the cachet that comes with having a famous forebear in politics still count for something, a candidate’s electability also rests on his or her track record as a politician and ability to seize voters’ imaginations. This will be especially true in larger polities and in those with more democratic characteristics, where political contestation is fiercer and transparency greater.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are due for important elections in the next few years. Scions from some of the most prestigious political families are likely to contend for office at various levels. By one count in 2020 for Indonesia, some 202 “dynastic candidates” ran in regional and other elections from 2015-2018, of whom 117 were elected.

However, while their families’ fame precedes them, today’s political heirs do not have completely smooth rides to the top of the political food chain. Even if they have been given leg-ups by their parents, most will not achieve the highest position in the land without some combination of hard work and fortune on their side.

The latest generation is more qualified on paper; several have earned academic degrees in political science or public policy. Those who entered politics as a first career generally did so in their twenties or thirties, often learning at their parents’ knees and taking over constituencies or significant portfolios when Mum or Dad’s political star was in the ascendant.

Yet the young’uns do not necessarily inherit charisma. Most will not have the trials by fire that launched their famous parents or grandparents as politicians. In some cases, Junior is unable to come into his or her own because the parent is still very much alive and kicking in national politics and seemingly reluctant to cede the limelight. Table 1 shows a selection of individuals from political dynasties and the ages at which they first held significant political or other posts:

Table 1. When (Political) Apples Don’t Fall Far from the Tree

Political Dynasties in Southeast Asia, Selected Individuals and Positions

() indicate age at which position first held

For the 2024 presidential elections (PE), Puan Maharani, youngest daughter of Indonesia’s fifth president Megawati Sukarnoputri and granddaughter of its first president Sukarno, has the strongest pedigree of all the candidates. Yet Puan’s chances of clinching a solid nomination for the presidency are not strong. Her ratings in polls have been dismal and her performance as parliament speaker unremarkable. If she is willing to bide her time and settle for the vice-presidential running-mate’s position in 2024, Puan could nevertheless position herself for 2029 and beyond.

Prabowo Subianto, Suharto’s son-in-law, is making his third bid for the presidency in 2024. While he tops some popularity polls now, the next 18 months will likely see the rankings shift dramatically. Prabowo’s age (73 at election time) is likely to count against him when voters look at 53-year-olds Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo, the other two PE frontrunners.

While name recognition and the cachet that comes with having a famous forebear in politics still count for something, a candidate’s electability also rests on his or her track record as a politician and ability to seize voters’ imaginations.

There are other pedigreed candidates who are in with a shot — albeit long ones. Prabowo’s brother-in-law, Suharto’s youngest son Tommy, who has served prison time for “murder by proxy” for hiring a hitman to kill the judge who had convicted him of corruption, intends to contest in 2024 as well, albeit at the ground level. Tommy is associated with the Indonesian People’s Voice Party (Partai Swara Rakyat Indonesia, Parsindo), which was founded in 2013 and “re-launched” this month. The party’s rhetoric draws strongly on nostalgia for the authoritarian rule of Suharto, but it will probably garner a smattering of votes.

Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s oldest son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY) is also a possible candidate for PE 2024. At 44, he has national prominence as chairman of the Democratic Party (PD). However, AHY’s track record as a politician has not been stellar. In 2017, he lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election, garnering around 17 per cent of the vote.

In 2020, President Joko Widodo was criticised for betraying his promise to eschew nepotism by helping to launch the careers of two political arrivistes – his oldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka for Widodo’s former post of mayor of Surakarta (Solo) and his son-in-law Bobby Nasution as mayor of Medan. Both men are in their early thirties. They will likely leverage patronage networks to position themselves for higher posts after Widodo’s presidency ends. But in the final calculation, they are relative lightweights.

In Malaysia, public demand for accountability and anti-corruption efforts to continue may mean that political scions face even stronger headwinds. Yet former prime minister Najib Razak’s ongoing legal troubles have shone the spotlight on his oldest son from his first marriage, Mohd Nizar Najib, 44. Nizar is expected to continue his grandfather’s and father’s legacy. The Pekan constituency, which the family has held since 1959, is Nizar’s to lose when Malaysia calls its next general election. However, if he is casting his sights on the premiership, his journey will be a long and by no means guaranteed one.

Meanwhile, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar, 41, dubbed the “princess of reformasi” when she entered politics in her twenties, continues to be a quiet force. Now that she has returned to be the vice president of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), she is likely to be a key Opposition leader with staying power like her father.

In Thailand, the Shinawatra family might have had the most to learn from watching Marcos Jr.’s election. Rehabilitating the family name might just be a matter of time given the Shinawatras’ extensive political ties and influence. The introduction of Paetongtarn, the youngest daughter of disgraced former prime minister and patriarch Thaksin to the national scene last year gave rise to much speculation that she will be Pheua Thai’s prime ministerial candidate whenever the next Thai elections are called. With half a million and counting followers on social media and a degree in political science from Chulalongkorn University, it is possible that the Instagram-worthy 36-year-old will prove that political apples still fall close to the tree.

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Julia Lau is Senior Fellow and Co-Coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme, and Editor, Fulcrum at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.