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Ott Lumi: politics and family

For the first time in Estonia, a party leader’s torch will be passed from father to son this weekend. There is nothing illegal about this, but it is an excellent opportunity to discuss political dynasties in a democracy.

More generally, the informality of the decision-making process is a crucial feature of political dynasties, and this brings with it a number of specific features. By the way, the informality of decision-making is not necessarily a family phenomenon. It can also be linked to a situation in which a person, who is not adequately placed in the decision-making hierarchy, can perform a certain level of functions. An interesting example in this respect is Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, who was the envy of members of Thatcher’s cabinet because it was by allegation he whom Thatcher listened to for advice on various sectoral policies (Ingham served Thatcher for 11 years and was knighted at the same time as Thatcher resigned).

There are political families in Estonia, but it is questionable whether we can speak of political dynasties in Estonia as in general, in democracy, a political dynasty would require a bloodline of at least three generations. So the Kallas, the Helmets, and the Savisards have another generation to work on. Of course, there are countries where the bar is much higher. For instance, in the United States, there are thought to be four political dynasties in all. These are the Adamses, the Harrisons, the Roosevelts, and the Bushes – all of whom have had at least two presidents in their own families. In American terms, the total number of political dynasties is thought to be around 40, the most famous of which are undoubtedly the Kennedys, the Clintons (Bill Clinton’s uncle was a member of the Arkansas State House of Representatives). Or, for example, the Cheneys, in whose family Dick Cheney is known to have been Bush Jr.’s vice-president and whose daughter is now a member of the US House of Representatives.

As expected, in European terms, political dynasties have a completely different meaning than the countries of South-East Asia, where combating them is, one might say, a discipline in itself. The most striking example is the Philippines. The political environment there is described as being controlled by totally different dynasties, controlled by seven families. This bizarre mix results from a corporatist political culture, widespread corruption, and a highly corporatist social model rooted in the colonial era. The political systems there have gone so far that, in the case of Indonesia (the world’s third-largest democracy), for example, a particular law has been passed banning close relatives of members of parliament from holding any public office for more than four years.

But in general, the emergence of political families is a socio-cultural phenomenon that is relatively fruitless to combat.

But in general, the emergence of political families is a socio-cultural phenomenon that is relatively fruitless to combat.

What causes this phenomenon? In environments where campaigning is extremely expensive, money certainly plays a significant role (USA). In Southeast Asian and Latin American societies, where we are talking about high levels of corruption and caste systems, the problem of hierarchical societies plays a role not only because of money but also because access to public decision-making is minimal. Even everywhere in the European Union, there is a principle that access to public decision-making is better for graduates of specific schools.

In the case of France, for example, it is the alumni of the École Nationale d’administration. A large number of French presidents, including Chirac, Hollande, Macron, and Giscard d’Estaing, not to mention prime ministers, a large number of whom are alumni of this school. Even though France has the most etatist tradition of national governance, educational background is always vital in political dynasties. And, of course, the individual’s brand always plays a major role in politics. In this sense, a person whose surname is, for example, Meri or Rüütel will always have an advantage over someone whose name is, for example, Kuusk or Kask. I know this first-hand, as I was involved in an experiment almost 20 years ago when I was asked to stand as a candidate for one of the first names of the President of the Republic of Estonia, who, without any campaigning, received around 400 votes in local elections.

By the way, there is also a considerable risk with political families – sons and daughters may not always be as successful as their parents.

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