In This Review

The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan
The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan
By Owen Bennett-Jones
320 pp, Yale University Press, 2020
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The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and  the New Japan
The Iconoclast: Shinzo Abe and the New Japan
By Tobias S. Harris
392 pp, Hurst, 2020
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Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia
Man of Contradictions: Joko Widodo and the Struggle to Remake Indonesia
By Ben Bland
192 pp, Penguin, 2020
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Three fascinating political biographies illustrate why it is so hard for even the most skillful leaders to carry out fundamental reforms in their societies. The Bhutto Dynasty is a complex Shakespearean tale of family loyalty and feuding, insecurity and arrogance, jealousy and solidarity. The Bhuttos’ story is filled with dramatic contradictions that span three generations. It revolves around Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, a Sindhi landowner and leader involved in South Asian politics from the 1920s until his death in 1957; his son Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as Pakistan’s president and prime minister in the 1970s; Zulfikar’s daughter Benazir Bhutto, who served twice as prime minister in the 1980s and 1990s; and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who was president from 2008 to 2013. They were feudal landholders with leftist politics, westernized elites with anticolonial attitudes, secular Muslims in a religious country, and a family that produced a rare female head of government from a lineage of playboy patriarchs. They were at once cynical and opportunistic in their political maneuvers and able to court and find martyrdom. Zulfikar was hanged after a military coup in 1979. Benazir was assassinated in 2007 by the Pakistani Taliban—probably with the connivance of the security forces—while running for a third term in office. It is hard to imagine a more intimate portrait both of the family and of Pakistani politics than this riveting narrative. 

Shinzo Abe was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Harris’s superbly well-informed account of his career makes clear how he was able to be both a reformer and a conservative. He inherited from his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi (who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960) the mission of increasing Japan’s autonomy within the framework of the alliance with the United States; from his childhood in the booming 1960s, the desire to restore Japan’s lost economic dynamism; and from his electoral district in the far west of the country, the ambitious spirit of the Meiji Restoration, which started there. A disastrous first stint as prime minister from 2006 to 2007 taught him the need to consolidate power over the fractious ruling party and government apparatus. After returning to office in 2012, Abe pushed through wide-ranging reforms in areas as disparate as corporate governance, agriculture, and guest-worker policies. He established a national security council, pursued closer ties with regional powers, concluded an economic partnership agreement with the eu, revived the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the United States withdrew from it in 2017, and accepted greater responsibility for self-defense within the American alliance. Yet when he resigned from his third consecutive term in office for health reasons this past August, it remained unclear whether his economic policies and regional diplomacy would survive in the face of a global economic downturn and the rise of China.

Bland, who covered Indonesia for the Financial Times, offers a lively portrait of Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi), the president of Indonesia since 2014. Originally the owner of a small furniture factory, Jokowi rose to power as a person who, in his own words, is “simple, polite, and honest.” But to keep his footing in the country’s slippery politics, with its nine personality-driven parliamentary parties, 30 ministries, and nearly 550 directly elected local government leaders, he has formed a shifting series of alliances with political dynasts, tycoons, Islamists, and generals, accumulating power by tying himself to the status quo. Instead of expanding democracy, he has weakened the Corruption Eradication Commission; presided over rising violence toward religious minorities and LGBTQ people; appointed his longtime rival, the alleged human rights violator Prabowo Subianto, as defense minister; intensified violence against the Free Papua Movement; and censored social media. Although Jokowi has promoted some important infrastructure projects, he has undermined his own efforts to tap Indonesia’s economic potential by adopting policies grounded in the country’s historical fear of foreign influence.