Asian Women and Politics: The Family Connection

In terms of advancing the participation of women in politics, the election of Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister of Thailand is a highly qualified achievement.

Yingluck, of course, is Thailand’s first woman premier. It’s a particular distinction in what has been a male-dominated domain, given an extra hard edge by the regular intervention of a politicized military.

Unfortunately for the progression of women in Asian political life, she continues what has become almost a tradition in the region. The women who have risen to the top have all done so with family connections.

As nearly everybody who has ever heard the name Yingluck knows, she is the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lives in exile after being ousted in an army coup in 2006.

For a political neophyte who was almost unknown in Thailand a few months ago, Yingluck, 44, performed impressively on the campaign trail and during the process of her nomination by parliament, which was approved by the king last week.

As she settles into the job with her new cabinet, however, she faces an enormous challenge to her credibility. She is widely seen as a front for Thaksin, who is suspected of calling the shots from his home in Dubai.

Even if Yingluck manages to ride out the novelty of being an attractive female leader and persuades skeptics that she is both capable and her own person, she can never escape one reality. She would not have been there but for her family affiliation.

Sadly, that is the established route in Asia, pioneered in the Subcontinent when Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960 became the world’s first female prime minister. She served three terms as Sri Lanka’s premier after a monk killed her husband, Solomon, who had previously held the post. Later, their daughter was elected head of state.

Indira Gandhi, who served longer than any other female prime minister in the world, learned her politics at the side of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. She won four terms, occupying the premier’s office for a total of 15 years before being assassinated.

When Benazir Bhutto became prime minister of Pakistan in 1988 at 35, she was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. She had been politicized by a thuggish military, which overthrew and hanged her father, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a decade earlier.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, two politically pedigreed women have fought each other and the military for the past couple of decades for the honour of leading the nation.

Khaleda Zia, widow of assassinated president and former army chief Ziaur Rahman, became the first female prime minister of Bangladesh in 1991. She later served a second, five-year term.

Her chief opponent, current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is the eldest of five children of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and first president of Bangladesh. It is also her second term.

Sheikh Hasina’s political destiny was set one fateful night in 1975, when disgruntled military officers staged a coup and killed her father, mother and three brothers. Abroad at the time, she lived in exile before returning home to resume her father’s career.

In Southeast Asia, women without exception have needed a famous man to lead them into political leadership.

Cory Aquino, who described herself as an “ordinary housewife”, was catapulted to the presidency of the Philippines after her politician husband, Ninoy, was murdered by Marcos regime henchmen.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi carries not only the banner of democracy and opposition to military domination, but also the name of her father, assassinated independence hero General Aung San.

Indonesia’s Megawati Sukarnoputri and Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines followed their fathers – to be fair, after a considerable interval -- into the presidency.

Ms. Megawati faced opposition from male Islamic politicians to becoming president in 1999, after her party won the most seats in an election. One Islamic party chief declared it was inappropriate for a woman to lead Indonesia, despite breakthroughs in both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

She settled for the vice presidency, and was able to move up when the top post opened again in 2001, a reflection of slowing improving attitudes towards women assuming a larger political role.

In Yingluck’s case, she has been installed democratically as prime minister against the wishes of the military brass by an older bother with a two-year jail sentence for corruption hanging over his head.

Any attempt by Prime Minister Yingluck to allow Thaksin to return home early without serving time would expose her government to the same fate that befell his five years ago.