Monday, 16 March 2009

Keeping it in the family

How ubiquitous are political dynasties? In India we often talk of politics as a family-run business. But India is no exception.

I was struck today by an article on the stranglehold of dynasties over Japanese politics. An astonishing 40% of legislators from the Liberal Democratic Party are descendants of former legislators. Given that the LDP has governed Japan for much of the period since 1958 onwards, the political power of family dynasties has entrenched itself into the machinery of the state. Shinzo Abe (who resigned as Prime Minister in 2007) and Yasuo Fukuda (who resigned from the same post a year later) are the grandson and son, respectively, of former Prime Ministers. Shinjiro Kouzumi, the son of another PM (Junichiro) is contesting a seat that has already been in the family for three generations. Edward Lincoln, an NYU professor, found that in the 18-member cabinet of current PM Taro Aso, four members had fathers or grandfathers who had been PMs and ten were children of former LDP lawmakers. A senior researcher at the Tokyo Foundation, Sota Kato, sums up the situation: 'It takes a blood test to get elected these days.'

Australia is not immune either. Former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's father was Immigration Minister and his grandfather was Premier of South Australia. Current Trade Minister, Simon Crean, is the son of a former Trade Minister. And so forth.

Meanwhile in the United States, according to a recent report by the National Public Radio, 45% of members of the first U.S. Congress had relatives follow them into the legislature. That rate is still high at 10%.

Intrigued, I looked for more data and came across a fantastic paper by Ernesto Dal Bó (Berkeley), Pedro Dal Bó (Brown) and Jason Snyder (Northwestern). They argue that in U.S. politics, 'power begets power': the longer a legislator enjoys power, the greater are the chances that she/he would start (or continue) a political dynasty. If a politician holds power for more than one term, the likelihood of a relative entering Congress in future increases by 70%. Using data for 1972-2004, the authors compute a 'dynastic bias' for different occupations: the odds that both son and father are in the same profession. For legislators, the bias is seven times stronger than for economists, ten times stronger than for doctors, and forty-seven times stronger than for carpenters! I copy below a table (p. 44) of notable political dynasties in the U.S. Congress.

The Indian elections for the 15th Lok Sabha are exactly a month away. The above data and evidence could be easily misconstrued as justification for condoning political dynasties in India as well. Why should we bother to change when even advanced democracies are susceptible to similar degrees of nepotism? The answer: there are 714 million votes at stake.

5 comments:

Arjun said...

You forgot to include Singapore :-)

Amit Singh said...

enjoyed reading this arunabha. i am not surprised that the chances for dynasties developing are greater in politics than for carpentry, given the many rewards that power begets.

Saheli said...

Very interesting. I doubt most Americans are aware of that many dynasties outside of Kennedy, Bush & Clinton, but you can find the threads--sometimes with skipped generations and matrilineal lines--if you poke around the biographies of various officers. I wonder about the comparative prevalence of dynasties in other fields across these various countries--entertainment dynasties are big in both Bollywood & Hollywood, and family run law-firms and banks are commonplace.

srinidhi said...

eInteresting speculation! Evidently it is based on doing what the family knows best and diversifying only if there are better returns elsewhere or trouble internally. Do you consider families who labor as farmers for generations as part of this dynasty perpetuation?

nitish said...

Nice piece D...

In India inner party democracy is a necessary condition for breaking dynastic/coterie control...but that of course is a function of how much access to resources (money and political networks) and 'independent' public recognition the challengers enjoy...