Their Fathers


Fathers have played a decisive role in the lives of many famous politicians. John Fitzgerald Kennedy fulfilled his rich father’s political ambition and became the first Catholic to be elected as President of the United States. Margaret Thatcher’s grocer father influenced her future ideological affiliation, as the British Prime Minister readily acknowledged: “I just owe almost everything to my father and it’s passionately interesting for me that the things that I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things that I believe have won the election.”

The father-son dynamic has shaped the career paths of many renowned public figures: Franz Kafka’s struggle against his brutish overbearing father was played out in his literary characters’ struggles against an imperfect world; Mozart’s father was the only teacher of the great composer; the spectre of his own father looms over Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Paternity and its influences have formulated the political reasoning of many modern politicians:

Barack Obama

Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Hawaii – the first president of the United States to be born (in 1961) in the last state admitted (in 1959). Obama’s origin has been a topic of much speculation in the United States. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was an American of English ancestry; his father, Barack Obama, Sr., was a Luo representative from a province in Kenya. Obama’s parents met in 1960 in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii, where his father was a foreign student on scholarship. The couple married in 1961, but divorced a few years later after Obama Sr. entered Harvard University. Barack was then only two years old and saw his father only once again, briefly in 1971.

Before arriving in Hawaii, Obama Sr. had walked out on his family in Kenya. His first wife, Kezia, was then expecting the couple’s second child. When he proposed to Stanley Dunham in Hawaii, he concealed from his future wife that he was not yet divorced from his first wife. His second marriage lasted only a few years and his graduate fellowship in economics at Harvard University for an even shorter period of time. When the fellowship program was terminated early, Obama Sr. returned to Nairobi accompanied by elementary school teacher Ruth Beatrice Baker, whom he had been dating and with whom he fathered another child. Their son, Mark, later recalled that Obama Sr. was emotionally abusive to members of his family and even sometimes violent.

Barack Obama and his father spent only a month together during their reunion in 1971. During that brief time, the father taught his son to play basketball and to appreciate jazz, both of which are passions of the President of the United States to this day. Back in Nairobi, Obama Sr. held a number of public offices and was dismissed from most of them. His Kenyan relatives remember him as an arrogant person who boasted about his own intellect. In the last years of his life, he became a heavy drinker. He died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1982. In his book, Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama wrote that the example set by his father motivated him to be a better parent for his children.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was four years old when his father, Ahmad Sabourjian, decided to start a new life in the capital city. He changed his second name to Ahmadinejad to avoid discrimination in Tehran because of his low social standing. The surname Sabourjian derives from thread painter, the lowest social status in Iran. By contrast, the surname Ahmadinejad has a rather religious connotation and literally means a representative of the race of Muhammad. Ahmad worked as blacksmith and weaver and was a follower of Shia. For a certain period, he taught the Quran.

Besides Mahmoud, Ahmad had six other children as well. Before moving to Tehran, the family had lived in the village of Aradan. It is believed that being raised in a poor family shaped the Iranian President’s sentiments toward the indigent. Ahmadinejad is said to dine only with guests who pay zakat – an annual payment for support of the poor.

Relatives recount the story of how Ahmad sold his house in Tehran and bought a more modest one in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continued to live after being elected as President of Iran. The President remained in that flat for some time, moving only due to security considerations. The impression he clearly wanted to convey was that he was a simple man like his father.

Ilham Aliyev

Vote for me because I am the only one who will continue the path chosen by my father… I have tried and will try to take more after my father, Ilham Aliyev declared at the launch of his election campaign to succeed his father as President of Azerbaijan. And in fact, Ilham’s career has been an attempt to continue his father’s policies. Ilham has always lived in the shadow of his father. As the BBC has reported: “Ilham Aliyev lacks his father’s charisma, political skills, contacts, experience, stature, intelligence and authority.” That may well explain why he carries on his father’s legacy with rigid, linear politics.

Not much is known about the childhood and student years of Ilham’s father, Heydar Aliyev. The high-ranking official of security service during the Soviet period, the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR and First Secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan Communist Party was accused by Mikhail Gorbachev of corruption in 1987 and dismissed from the post. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country fell into chaos. Heydar Aliyev then governed the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and paid no heed to the central government. After an unsuccessful campaign in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Ayaz Mutallibov stepped down and the new president, Abulfaz Elchibey, invited Heydar Aliyev to Baku to settle the existing crisis. Not long after, fearing a military coup, Elchibey fled Baku to his native village and Aliyev became acting president. In 1993, Elchibey was deposed by universal referendum and Heydar was elected President.

The presidential election which Ilham Aliyev won after the death of his father in 2003 was conducted with violations, according to international observers.

To this day, photos of Heydar Aliyev dominate the landscape – on the streets of Baku, in small cities and regions of Azerbaijan. The airport, a star and even a mountain are all named after the first President Aliyev. No fewer than three museums have been built to display his achievements.

Some political analysts believe that the presidency of Ilham will be a transitional stage toward the democratization of the country. Breaking free of his father’s cult of personality will be difficult not only for him, but for the whole of Azerbaijan.

Hugo Chávez

The father of Hugo Chávez was a schoolteacher who dropped out of school after the sixth grade. Hugo de los Reyes Chávez subsequently completed teacher qualification courses and, while working as a teacher, met future wife Elena Frías de Chávez.

Hugo was the second of the couple’s seven children. The Chávez family lacked adequate means to care for their children and sent Hugo and his elder brother off to live with their grandmother Rosa. Hugo developed a close bond with his grandmother. Years later, President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez recalled his childhood as “poor but very happy.” Despite that early poverty, his father Hugo de los Reyes Chávez achieved political power, serving first as a regional director of education and then as governor of Barinas.

Hugo’s mother wanted him to become a Catholic priest. He even worked for a year at a local church – cleaning statues smeared with candle wax. As he later said, he did not like that his church perceived Christ as a small statue while he believed Christ was a “rebel.” That experience caused him to distrust religious servants.

Hugo’s great grandfather Pedro Pérez Delgado was a revolutionary. Known as Maisanta, his grandfather assassinated President Juan Vicente Gómez in a failed rebellion and was arrested. Hugo would later say that Maisanta largely influenced his ideology, as did South American left-wing presidents – Peruvian Juan Velasco Alvarado and Panamanian Omar Torrijos.

Angela Merkel

The strict policies of the Chancellor of Germany have earned her the moniker “the second Iron Lady” – the first, of course, being Margaret Thatcher. Angela Merkel was born in 1954 into the family of Protestant theologian Horst Kasner, who had moved his family from West Germany to East Berlin. That decision was quite surprising because most German migration then was in the opposite direction. In the early months of 1954, 180,000 people fled the German Democratic Republic (GDR); by 1961, 2.5 million had left.

Kasner had been invited to Berlin by the Hamburg Bishop to fill a shortage of ministers in the East. “It was my mission to go there,” he told The International Herald Tribune, explaining: “After the Second World War, we were just thankful that we had survived. Those who were priests had a kind of duty. They needed priests over there.”

Kasner stayed in the East after the Berlin Wall was erected in 1961. His home was a gathering place for leftist intellectuals living in East Germany and critical of the government. Those associations and his religious profession created problems for Kasner and his family. His wife, who had been a teacher in the West, was prohibited from working in the East on the ground that she would indoctrinate students. Angela, also prevented from teaching, studied physics before entering politics. Her father opposed reunification and for that was labeled “Red Kasner” in the local media. Angela Merkel apparently did not share her father’s political opinions and shifted to the opposite right-wing flank.

Like most pupils living in the GDR, Merkel was a member of the Socialist-led youth movement Free German Youth (FDJ). She became a member of the FDJ district board after entering the Academy of Sciences and led the Agitation and Propaganda direction. She mastered Russian fluently and continued studying physics at the University of Leipzig. In 1989, Merkel joined the movement for reunification of Germany and abandoned leftist ideas.

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad. Assad Sr. had governed Syria for three decades. Born in Qardaha to a poor Alawite family, Hafez joined the Baath party at the age of sixteen and quickly rose in its ranks. He came to power in the coup of 1970 – his rule marked with repressions against the opposition and gross violations of human rights. Some political experts believe that his strong leadership actually stabilized the political environment.

Like Heydar Aliyev in Azerbaijan, Hafez Assad created a personality cult in Syria. “Our eternal leader, Hafez al-Assad,” is the beginning of a song with which teachers would faithfully begin each lesson. His photograph was displayed in every public place and his divine qualities were often highlighted and even mentioned together with Mohammad. With his sanctity established, Hafez managed to legitimize the transfer of power from father to son. The state-controlled media and education system depicted Hafez as a strong and just leader tolerant of all ethnic groups.

After Hafez’s death, Bashar inherited the government ruled by the Arab socialist party Baath made up mostly of Alawites. Alawite is a Shia sect which comprises only ten percent of the population in a country where the majority is Suni Muslim (seventy-four percent). To clear the way for Bashar, the Constitution was amended to reduce the presidential age to forty. Bashar ran unopposed and won the election by a landslide – ninety-seven percent of the vote.

Hafez had prepared his first son Bassel to be his heir. Bashar seemed less interested in a political career and did not even speak on that topic with his father. After graduating from medical school in Damascus, Bashar continued his postgraduate training in ophthalmology in London. When Bassel was killed in a car accident, however, Bashar became a presidential candidate, received a military education and stepped out onto the political arena.

Bashar al-Assad maintained his father’s dictatorial authority and, to this day, continues repressions against his people, torturing critics and quashing opposition movements. In 2001, shortly after his election to the presidency, Bashar himself introduced the Internet to the public, a public which is now using it as a tool to fight against his brutal regime. Owing to the loyalty of cadres appointed by him in military units, Bashar still manages to cling to power and continues repressions against the opposition.

François Hollande

“The left wasn’t my heritage, I chose it,” François Hollande declared during his election campaign. The new President of France was referring to his father, Georges Holland, who had run as a far-right candidate in the 1959 local elections in Rouen in the northern part of France. The elder Hollande also supported nationalist politician Jean-Louis Tixier-Vignancour, who was a mentor of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 1968, Georges Holland moved his family from Rouen to Neuilly-sur-Seine and shortly thereafter split from his wife. François stayed with his mother, who was a social worker supporting François Mitterrand.

François Hollande was a classroom representative while in secondary school and president of the student union while at the university. He went on to study at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), France’s graduate school for civil servants known as the “factory of the elite.” As biographer Serge Raffy reports, Holland’s relationship with authority was influenced by the personality of his father.

Nursultan Nazarbayev

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the country for the past three decades, was born into a poor family in the rural town of Chemolgan near Almaty. His father, Abish Nazarbayev, worked for a wealthy local family until the family’s farmland was confiscated under Joseph Stalin’s collectivization policy. After that, Abish took his family to live in the mountains and later avoided compulsory military service during World War II due to an injury. One of Nursultan’s hobbies was horse racing, which he learned at the age of five from his father. He graduated from boarding school with distinction, but was not accepted at the State University of Kazakhstan. Although admitted to the Kyiv Aviation Institute, he was not permitted by his parents to go to Ukraine. He joined the Communist Party in 1962 and soon became an active member, serving as First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party from 1989 to 1991. On 24 August 1990, Nazarbayev was elected President of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he ran unopposed in the presidential election on 1 December 1991 and was elected with ninety-one percent of the vote.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 111, published 30 July 2012.




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