Familiar Families: name and power politics in Kenya and South Korea

Votes are being counted in Kenya’s keenly fought general election, with the winner almost certain to come from one of two candidates. Raila Odinga, the incumbent Prime Minister, is in with a good chance of winning another term. The marginal favourite at the time of writing, however, was Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s founder Jomo.

‘Political families’ have been a feature of history, both under authoritarian regimes and within democracies, and their prevalence is quite astonishing. One need only look at the great political dynasties of America; the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons. It appears that at critical junctures in a country’s development, people crave familiarity, even if the only familiarity is a name.

For example, Jomo Kenyatta is widely revered in Kenya for having secured independence from Britain and stabilising the country so that it underwent capitalist development. His son Uhuru, meanwhile, is due to stand trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his leading role in post-electoral violence in 2007, when some 1,500 Kenyans were killed during weeks of rioting. Whilst Jomo was no saint and Uhuru is no devil, it is somewhat surprising that Uhuru has mobilised considerable support for his leadership outside of his ethnic group (something that plays an important part in Kenyan electoral politics) given his role in Kenya’s turbulent recent past. Nevertheless, whatever he may have done, Uhuru is still his father’s son and the gratitude expressed to the country’s founder may be reflected in support for his son today.

Jomo Kenyatta is one of Africa's most famous founding fathers
Jomo Kenyatta is one of Africa’s most famous founding fathers

Whilst Jomo Kenyatta’s rule led to many inequalities within Kenya, it is generally considered to be one of the more secure and prosperous periods in the country’s history. As such, his family name is associated with prosperity. This is particularly important at a time when Kenya stands at a crossroads between becoming an influential technology hub attracting foreign investment and being a country bedeviled by Islamic terrorism, ethnic dissent and political corruption. The need for a prosperous, strong leader is paramount and Uhuru shares his father’s name. This is certainly not the only reason people might support him in his bid for the premiership but on some level – perhaps overt, perhaps subconscious – it is likely to have an effect on individual voting preference.

A similar scenario has recently played out in South Korea. Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, has recently been elected as President. Although Park Chung-hee was a military dictator who opposed democracy and was eventually assassinated, his rule coincided with the economic explosion of South Korea, which went from being a backward agrarian economy to a Newly Industrialised Country (NIC) at the forefront of world technology.

Park Chung-hee suppressed political development in favour of economic growth
Park Chung-hee suppressed political development in favour of economic growth

South Koreans have concerns of their own today; increasing aggression from North Korea, a stagnating economy, an ageing population, political malaise. The desire for a strong, uncompromising ruler like Park Chung-hee is apparent among segments of the population. Again, as with Uhuru Kenyatta, Park Geun-hye is not her father. Yet the association of family name and political preference is often a reality. Ms Park’s rhetoric towards North Korea during her election campaign was defiant and her promise to put a stop to overbureaucratisation appeared sincere. Such sentiments had the hallmarks of her father, even though her rule is going to be as democratic as his was dictatorial.

At critical moments, people tend to stick with what they know. The human race is, by nature, conservative. Change is greeted with scepticism and familiarity welcomed. This perhaps explains, in part, the success of Uhuru Kenyatta and Park Geun-hye in following in their fathers’ footsteps. The reality is, of course, that their rules will be unrecognisable from those of their parents’.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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