The election and swearing in of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s first female president marks an historic moment for the East Asian country and U.S. ally.
While that may sound like a revolutionary development, it actually continues a less noble tradition in Asia -- the rise to power of women who are either the wives of daughters of powerful male leaders.
Park Geun-hye, 61, who defeated liberal opponent Moon Jae-in in the general election in December on a tough stance against North Korea and a focus on the national economy, did not get to the top entirely on her own.
She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979. (Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the chief of the country’s central intelligence agency. Park Geun-hye’s mother was murdered in 1974 by a North Korean assassin.)
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Such family connections, while frequently dangerous, are of crucial importance to attaining power across Asia, even in “democratic” states like South Korea.
Consider the case of the world’s biggest democracy India -- the Congress Party has essentially ruled that country since its founding in 1947 when Jawaharlal Nehru was elected Prime Minister. His daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) became India’s first woman prime minister in 1966, serving until 1977; then serving a second term from 1980 to 1984, before an assassin’s bullet ended her life.
Indira’s daughter-in-law, the Italian-born Sonia, widow of Rajiv, is now the head of the Congress Party and the most powerful politician in India.
India’s neighbor and chief rival, Pakistan, also has a similar story of blood and dynasty.
Pakistan’s first (and thus far only) Prime Minister was Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as the country’s president and prime minister until he was executed in 1979 by General Zia al-Haq.
Benazir served two terms as Prime Minister (1988-1990 and 1993-1996).
Benazir herself was assassinated in 2007, during the middle of yet another election campaign.
Today, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, is the president of Pakistan, while her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is poised to follow in his famous parents’ footsteps. Only 25 years old, Bilawal is already co-chairman of his family’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
Bilawal has two younger sisters, Bakhtawar and Asifa – conceivably they too could have political careers in their future should they wish (or if circumstances dictate such an event).
In other Asian countries, we have seen other similar family sagas.
More than fifty years ago, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the first woman leader of a modern state, taking over as prime minister of (then-called) Ceylon in 1960. She would serve as the country’s leader three separate times: 1960-65, 1970-77, and 1994-2000.
However, she only attained power after her husband, prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike, was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959.
And it didn’t stop there.
Sirimavo’s daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga served as President of Sri Lanka from 1994 to 2005; while Sirimavo’s son, Anura Bandaranaike, is a former speaker and cabinet minister.
In the Philippines, the country’s first female president Corazon Aquino stepped in to fill the vacuum created by the assassination of her husband (and presidential hopeful) senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. in 1985.
Corazon served a president from 1986 to 1992. Her son Benigno "Noy-noy" Aquino III, would also serve as president.
Another lady leader of Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who served as president from 2001 and 2010, was the daughter of Diosdado Macapagal, who ruled as president in the early 1960s.
However, Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, noted that the fact that many Asian women leaders come from prominent political families is not unique to their gender.
“Dynastic politics is a prominent part of the political systems of many Asian countries,” he said.
“There are an equal number of male leaders whose families built long-term careers in public service.”
Still, women politicians continue to face difficulties breaking into the highest levels of politics, even in the west.
“Part of it is driven by culture, it's only been recently that women have started to move to prominent leadership roles in business and other industries, and also because women have low participation rates in government, due in a large part to legal, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers,” Chandler explained.
“It's only been in the last few decades where women have had better opportunities to win elected offices in the western democracies -- and in the last 10 to 12 years where more and more women have been elected to the U.S. Congress.”
Indeed, some prominent western countries, including the U.S., France and Spain have never had a woman leader, while Britain and Germany have only had one each.
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