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Why dynastic female leaders win elections in Asia

8 December 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Mark R. Thompson
The landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party in November 8, 2015 Myanmar election, after decades of Suu Kyi being held under house arrest, marks one of the world’s most extraordinary political turnabouts.

But Suu Kyi’s political ascendancy is less unique in Asia than it may at first appear. As the daughter of the country’s independence leader Aung San, who was assassinated in 1947, she is only one of several prominent female dynasts — the daughters, wives or widows of ‘martyred’ male leaders — to lead major democratic opposition movements across Asia and then assume political power. Other prominent examples are Corazon C. Aquino in the Philippines, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, as well as Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.

So why have so many dynastic female leaders emerged during democratic struggles in the region? At first glance, the success of women in politics may seem surprising because Myanmar like many other Asian countries is often seen to be patriarchal and paternalistic.

Although women played prominent political roles in pre-colonial times and during the Burmese nationalist struggle, military rule in Myanmar after 1962 drastically reduced female participation in politics.

Many women in Myanmar also lack adequate employment opportunities and have inadequate access to healthcare and education. Myanmar ranks relatively low (at 150 out of 187 countries) in the most recent Gender-related Development Index (GDI) rankings of the United Nations Development Programme.

Traditional religious practice is also normally seen as an obstacle for the advancement of women. In Myanmar, the discriminatory race and religion bills passed in 2015 — which force women (but not men) to seek permission to marry someone from a different faith and punish adultery, thus potentially endangering women who lodge a rape accusation — are one recent example.

Yet, along with Myanmar, predominantly Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand have also had female dynastic leaders. Likewise there have been female dynastic leaders in the Christian Philippines and, perhaps most surprising, many predominantly Islamic countries in Asia have had women as opposition leaders who later became heads of government.


What then explains the success of female politicians in Asia?
The case of Aung San Suu Kyi and other dynastic female leaders in Asia show that gender stereotyping can sometimes prove to be a political plus in a crisis situation. As a woman Suu Kyi could be portrayed as non-political — a virtuous alternative to the country’s corrupt, Machiavellian military leaders that have ruled since the 1988 anti-military protests.

Women have also, perhaps counter-intuitively, benefited from their association with the family. Suu Kyi, like other dynastic female leaders, promised to cleanse the soiled public realm with private, familial virtue. Suu Kyi is often called ‘sister Suu’ by her supporters. Other female leaders have similarly been called ‘aunts’ or ‘mothers’. Suu Kyi’s courage in the face of repression, tenaciousness over decades of opposition and eloquence in criticising military rule further increased this ‘moral capital’.

The choice of Suu Kyi as opposition leader was also advantageous as she acquired what the German sociologist Max Weber called ‘inherited charisma’. A male dynast successor is more likely to be judged on his own merits, making it more difficult for him to inherit the mantle of charisma from a father or brother to whom he may be compared unfavourably. But a widow, wife or daughter is often seen to better embody their husbands’ or fathers’ charisma.
Suu Kyi’s ‘national inheritance’ enabled her to keep the military regime on the defensive for decades.

The examples of female dynastic leaders in power elsewhere in Asia also points to some particular problems that Suu Kyi may face in the near future. Male opponents are likely to try to portray her as a ‘weak woman’. The NLD coalition may face fragmentation after she leaves the political scene unless she is able to adequately institutionalise her legacy. At least parts of the military may try to challenge her hold on power, as they did Corazon Aquino’s in the Philippines or Benazir Bhutto’s in Pakistan.

Suu Kyi will also have to face up to the challenge of ethnic and religious divisions in Myanmar. During Myanmar’s recent political liberalisation and the election campaign, ethno-chauvinist forces emerged, particularly among hard-line Buddhist monks who fanned hatred of the Rohingya minority and used anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Many human rights activists have criticised Suu Kyi for not speaking up to defend the Rohingya and for not running a single Muslim candidate on the NLD slate. The NLD’s strategy has been to keep the focus on their democratic opposition to years of military rule, while largely ignoring this religious strife. With the election won and power tantalisingly close, it remains to be seen whether Aung San Suu Kyi becomes more outspoken on injustices perpetrated against the Rohingya or takes action to counter general anti-Muslim sentiments.

It is still uncertain whether Suu Kyi can actually translate the NLD’s electoral victory into democratic civilian rule after more than a half century of military dictatorship. But to have got this far against very long odds is in large part due to the qualities of moral leadership she inherited and further built upon as a female dynastic leader.

(Mark R. Thompson is acting Head and Professor of Politics at the Department of Asian and International Studies and Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, City University of Hong Kong. He is co-editor, with Claudia Derichs, of Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree (Berlin/London: 2013)

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