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Sri Lanka's Family Rule May Be Reaching Its Limit

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Traditions die hard in South Asia, where dynasties dominate the political process and succession all too often has been forced by an assassin's bullet.

An unprecedented number of widows and daughters have stepped into the shoes of murdered statesmen as presidents, prime ministers, or leaders of the opposition. Today women lead governments in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and opposition parties in India and Pakistan.

But nowhere have women retained as much power for so long as in Sri Lanka. The country's current president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has used her pedigree to win power, but is now finding it difficult to preserve her charisma in the island's troubled political landscape.

Ms. Kumaratunga's mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was elected the world's first woman prime minister in 1960 after the assassination of her husband, Solomon. Today Ms. Bandaranaike is back in the post of prime minister, but the position is largely ceremonial. The real power rests with her daughter.

It's a unique double act in more ways than one. President Kumaratunga's husband, a matinee idol, was assassinated while running for president in 1988.

Despite her credentials, Ms. Kumaratunga says she is against family fiefdoms dominating governments.

"I certainly agree that dynastic control of parties is not good," says Kumaratunga, seated in the formal dining room of Temple Trees, her official residence in Colombo. "I agreed to contest only after my mother agreed to contest for parliamentary elections, my brother crossed over to another party, and my husband was assassinated."

Kumaratunga's is not the only dysfunctional dynasty in South Asia, where domestic squabbles often spill over into the political arena. In Pakistan, then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's estranged brother fought against her in Parliament before being killed in 1996.

In India, Sonia Gandhi's sister-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, fell out with the Congress Party and is now an independent in Parliament supporting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.


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