The philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment were the first in modern times to systematically question the notion that political power and privi- lege should be inherited from generation to generation by monarchs or aristocrats. Some argued that the hereditary principle violated the basic precept that all human beings were created equal. Others regarded it as an affront to rea- son and rationality: why should someone be entitled to an office of state solely because his father or mother had occu- pied it? Reason dictated that these offices should be held, through election or appointment, by those best qualified by virtue of intellect and character, education and experience.
These ideas were rapidly translated from the realm of intellectual discourse into that of practical politics in the American and French Revolutions. In the ensuing century and a half, hereditary political power seemed to be in inex- orable decline. Imperial and royal power gave way to other forms of government in one country after another: France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, China, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and so on. In countries where a monar- chical form of government was maintained"Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Japan and others" the powers of the sovereign were whittled away to functions that were largely symbolic and ceremonial.
What was true for hereditary monarchies also seemed true for hereditary aristocracies. In virtually all of the coun- tries where aristocrats once enjoyed political power or influ- ence, they have ceased to do so. Even the British House of Lords, that last vestige of aristocratic power on the world stage, is now but a shadow of its former self, having fallen victim to repeated bouts of democratic reform. By the sec- ond half of the 20th century, the idea that real political power could be obtained through inheritance seemed very close to defunct. And so it was, in the traditional sense of monarchical or aristocratic succession. But it seems to be enjoying a veritable rebirth in another guise, what for want of any better term might be called hereditary democracy.
The beginnings of this new phenomenon can be traced back to 1966 when Indira Gandhi assumed the leader- ship of the Congress Party and the prime ministership of India, posts which until recently had both been held by her father Jawaharlal Nehru. Upon Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, she was succeeded by her son Rajiv. When he, too, was killed by an assassin, the Congress Party, in what can only be viewed as a surreal turn of events, eventually elect- ed as its leader his widow Sonja, an Italian-born airline stewardess with no political experience.
The phenomenon has not, however, been unique to India. It manifested itself elsewhere in South Asia, and then spread. In Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Sir Solomon Bandaranaike was followed in office by his widow. And the current president, Madame Kamaratunga, is their daughter. In Bangladesh, the current prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is the widow of a former president while the leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina, is the daughter of former Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman. In Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto took over the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party from her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and, after a period of military rule, succeeded him in the office of Prime Minister. In Indonesia, President Megawatti Sukarnoputri is the daugh- ter of the late President Sukarno, the leader of the country’s independence movement. In the Philippines, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal.
If the idea of inherited political power strikes a curious note in the case of supposedly democratic societies, it should be downright anathema in self-declared communist or socialist states. But even they are not exempt. President Kim Il Sung engineered the succession of his son, Kim Jong II in North Korea, while President Hafez al-Asad did the same for his son Bashar in Syria. It is enough to make Karl Marx do several revolutions in his grave!
And lest anyone imagine that this sort of thing occurs solely in Asia, one has only to think of the Papandreous, father and son, in Greece and the Bushes, father and son, in the United States.
And what of Canada? Will it remain immune or will it jump on the bandwagon? So far the phenomenon has man- ifested itself here only at the ministerial level, most promi- nently in the persons of Paul Martin, Sr., and Paul Martin, Jr. However, the media-star status recently acquired by the offspring of Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney may be a harbinger of things to come.
What accounts for the return of hereditary politics? Is it merely a manifestation of nostalgia? Does it represent a yearning for stability? Does it have anything to do with name recognition in electoral politics? Do some political families acquire a certain ”œroyal jelly” which breeds loyalty in supporters and voters? In these and similar questions may lie the germs of a doctoral dissertation in politics or sociology.