Illustration by Luciano Sardea Ramirez

On 2 December 2018, CNN Philippines held a forum where eight candidates for the Senate went live in order to answer questions regarding their candidacy. One of the questions asked was about political dynasties in the Philippines–whether or not they should be banned and their members constrained in their pursuit of political office. Two of the candidates who responded to the question pointed out that there was no law that prohibited political dynasties from running. They should, therefore, be seen in the same way as any other candidate and let the electorate make the decision on his/her worthiness.

The response given to the question is disingenuous because as with most things political, issues in the system are explained away in terms of it not being illegal–ignoring the essential difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Article II, Sec. 26 of the 1987 Constitution actually states that “the state shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” By the mere fact of its inclusion in the Constitution, the existence of political dynasties was already considered at the time of its drafting, to be an issue in our political system that needed to be rectified legally. The phrase “as may be defined by law,” however, has been an obstacle to any attempts to reduce the dominance of political dynasties in the country’s political system. It implies that an enabling law must be passed that would explain what a dynasty is and the repercussions that these have on the political system. The legislature, therefore, has the responsibility to enact such a law–something that it has failed to do since 1987. This is not because of any lack of trying. It is just that any attempt to address this issue runs smack into the wall of self-interest of the members of Congress, most of whom belong to a political family. None of the bills on political dynasties filed in the House of Representatives ever made it out of committee level.

Political dynasties, families, and clans that have dominated politics in particular localities are arguably the most important variable in Philippine politics. In many ways, they take the place of political parties, performing certain key political functions that are normally attributed to them.

This include leadership training (but only for clan members), setting up electoral machineries, and interest aggregation and articulation. As a phenomenon in Philippine politics, they have been the subject of interest for a number of scholars with books published regarding the dominance of political families in Philippine politics. Among the most prominent of these are the work of Gutierrez Eric on the Ninth Congress entitled The Ties that Bind: A guide to family, business, and other interests in the ninth House of Representatives (1994), and Alfred McCoy’s edited volume entitled An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines (1994) have argued that family, politics, and business have merged together to effect a weakening of public institutions in the course of advancing self-interest (particularly in enabling the accumulation of private wealth). A collection of between 150 to 250 families has dominated politics in different parts of the Philippines, coalescing with each other when necessary, and suppressing competition through bribery and violence. Felipe Miranda, Temario Rivera, and Malaya Ronas produced an edited volume that even went farther than merely asserting the links between politics and wealth accumulation, and their consequences. In Chasing the Wind (2012), they claimed that the dominance of these 250 families in the political life of the Philippines effectively makes it wrong for us to claim that the Philippine political system is democratic in nature. It would be more accurate to say that what we have is an oligarchical system.

Why do we make such a fuss over political dynasties? Can we not just accept that candidates carrying the names of well known-political families have no more of an advantage than household names like actors and actresses, or other well-known celebrities? Why should we be concerned over political dynasties?

In Political Science, scholarly works that have studied the issue maintain that political dynasties, especially at the local government level, imply a concentration of power that is tantamount to a non-competitive political system. This is precisely the point made in the Constitution–that the prohibition of political dynasties is necessary in order to “guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service.” In the Philippines, discussions and debates on democratic participation has focused attention on the right to vote, to make choices. Not that much attention has been given to the question of having choices. What would be the point of being able to make choices when day in and day out the choices are the same? Is this not pretty much the same as not having choices?

The Constitutional injunction recognizes the advantages that political dynasties have in electoral politics. Newbies in politics can only penetrate the system if they align themselves with established political dynasties. And even so, especially if they exhibit a lot of capability, a dynasty’s family member would still be given preference over new talent who is not a blood relative. The structure of the electoral system in local politics is skewed in favor of the anointed one of a political dynasty. They control over a political machinery that has been tried and tested over successive elections, and the consequent advantages inherent in being the incumbent (dynasty). The dominance of a political dynasty creates a disincentive for aspiring candidates (no matter how qualified and willing to serve) from actually submitting their certificates of candidacy. With their monopoly of power, dynasties deprive others of a fair opportunity to serve, and effectively reduces the choices available to the electorate.

The 1987 Constitution also instituted term limits as a way of ensuring circulation in who holds political power, and who occupies electoral positions. Presidents can therefore serve only one term of six years. Senators can serve two consecutive terms of six years each, allowing them to continue in office for up to a total of 12 consecutive years. Member of the House Representatives, governors, and mayors are limited to three terms of three years each, allowing them to serve up to nine years at a time. However, instead of curbing dynasties, term limits have simply facilitated the emergence of political monopoly by dynasties (instead of single persons).

There have been arguments to the effect that dynastic politics allow for policy continuity even at the level of local communities. This facilitates stability, and the possibility of more strategic planning at the local level. Possibly, but not likely.

The argument on policy continuity assumes that the policy is good in the first place, or that there is even some sort of coherent policy that is operating. Of course there are local governments that have adopted policies that have led to clear reforms. In most cases, these are evident in municipalities where a modicum of competitive politics is present. Performance legitimacy, or the recognition by the people concerned of the success of policies, leads to re-election. Where there is a concentration of power, or where dynasties dominate, the preservation of power becomes the primary consideration. Policies on social and economic development become a matter of secondary importance, and long-term strategic goals are for the most part non-existent. The necessary but tediously excruciating reforms and decisions are more often than not kicked down the road for future reference. Consequently, development is arrested as populist policies with short-term but immediate effects given the favor. This can be seen in the number of scholarships, funeral assistance, basketball courts, and waiting sheds for which resources are doled out. Even infrastructure development is done in the same way–as dole outs. Hence, we often see cemented roads that suddenly degenerate into dirt roads because there was not enough money to complete it. Or more often, short cemented patches on roads that interchange with longer patches of dirt.

What would be the point of being able to make choices when day in and day out the choices are the same? Is this not pretty much the same as not having choices?

The monopoly on power also brings about access to resources, both material and non-material, that would allow them to also monopolize business opportunities. Ever notice how many political dynasties have construction companies? There has been very little attention given to how local government projects are bidded out. The monopolization of power allows access to lucrative government contracts and/or opportunities to broker deals. Corruption is one of the consequences of the concentration of power, and political dynasties are conduits to and recipients of economic largesse.

The issues become starker with the prospect of a shift to federalism. It institutionalizes the geographic bounds of a political dynasty’s control. In a unitary system where central authority is weak, political dynasties have thrived quite well. What more in a political structure which gives significant amounts of political autonomy to local governments and the elites that dominate them?

If Philippine democracy is to be strengthened, one of the key issues that needs to be resolved is what to do with political dynasties. — HERMAN JOSEPH S. KRAFT

*The writer is currently a Taiwan Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He is an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

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