How political dynasties undermine local governance in the Philippines

How political dynasties undermine local governance in the Philippines

MICHAEL YUSINGCO laments the malign effect of political dynasties on the Philippines.

Most Filipinos would concede the country’s political system is controlled by traditional political families. A Sydney Morning Herald article in 2012, on the Marcos family, described the family as a ‘dynasty on steroids’—a term that could aptly be ascribed to many other political families in the Philippines today.

Political dynasties are proscribed under Section 26, Article II of the Philippine Constitution: ‘The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.’

However, the phrase ‘as may be defined by law’ has sustained the prevailing belief that enforcing the prohibition necessarily depends on anti-political dynasty legislation. Unfortunately, the fact that at least 75 per cent of legislators in the Philippine Congress belong to political dynasties flatly prevents the enactment of this law.

While there is presently no enforceable legal definition of political dynasty, most Filipinos would probably concur with the description by the eminent legal scholar Jose N. Nolledo, the prime mover behind the ban on dynasties in the 1987 Constitution:

In the Philippines, I think it is known to everyone that a person runs for governor; he becomes a governor for one term; he is allowed two re-elections under our concept. Then he runs for re-election; he wins. The third time, he runs for re-election and he wins and he is now prohibited from running again until a lapse of another election period. What does he do? Because he is old already and decrepit, he asks his son to run for governor.

In the meantime, he holds public office while the campaign is going on. He has control; he has already institutionalized himself. His son will inherit the position of governor, in effect, and then this will go to the grandson, et cetera. The others who do not have the political advantage in the sense that they have no control of government facilities will be denied the right to run for public office. Younger ones, perhaps more intelligent ones, the poorer ones, can no longer climb the political ladder because of political dynasty.

It seems to me that the public office becomes inherited. Our government becomes monarchical in character and no longer constitutional. [Record of the Constitutional Commission of 1986, Vol. 4, p. 731]

The territorial and political subdivisions of the Philippines are provinces, cities, municipalities and barangays. Ostensibly, each of these cantons is governed by a local authority framework. For example, a province would have a governor as its top elected official and a provincial council as the legislative body.

From Nolledo’s description, it can be seen immediately that political dynasties have an adverse impact on local governance. In some cases, dynastic families have captured the local government structure itself—an anomaly aptly described as ‘clan-inclusive government’. The current make-up of the local government of a group of small islands—the Dinagat Islands—north of Mindanao is a good example. The governor, vice-governor, three mayors and four councillors all come from the Ecleo clan.

Many ‘small dictatorships’

The vital role that local governance plays in nation-building is well-established. According to the International Guidelines on Decentralisation and Strengthening of Local Authorities, issued by UN-Habitat, ‘political decentralization to the local level is an essential component of democratization, good governance and citizen engagement’.

Igorot women rice cultivators, 2015
Women in rice field. Political dynasties have become the bane of local communities seeking socioeconomic progress (Minerva Chaloping-March).

However, the Philippines paints a contrary picture. A respected political commentator notes: ‘In the 1970s, there was only one dictatorship in the country: the Marcos dictatorship. Today, we have many “small dictatorships” in the form of political dynasties.’

The concentration of local government authority in a single family has two notable results. First, accountability in office is no longer a standard for public service because blood relations would expectedly trump over the public’s demand for checks and balances among local government officials. When this happens, unabated graft and corruption infect local governance itself. According to the latest report from the state’s highest corruption watchdog, the Office of the Ombudsman, most corruption indictments filed in 2014 were against local government officials.

Filipinos who are more qualified, passionate and patriotic, including many from the youth ranks, are deprived of the opportunity to establish clean and effective local governance.

The second effect of dynastic dominance in local government is the steady deterioration of the quality of leaders being elected to office. One political commentator lamented that meritocracy in governance is actually ‘dying at the hands of political dynasties’.

According to the Colombian academic, Pablo Querubin, political elites in the Philippines are so entrenched they have become essentially insulated from political competition. This has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance mindset, clearly demonstrated by local politicos who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact and, most likely, are simply a knee-jerk response to the clamour of the day from their supporters.

Even worse, as local communities continue to suffer inept and corrupt dynastic leaders, those who can, and are willing to, push for reforms but do not have the inherited political advantage are effectively denied the right to run for public office because of the monarchical nature of local government. Indeed, Filipinos who are more qualified, passionate and patriotic, including many from the youth ranks, are deprived of the opportunity to establish clean and effective local governance.

This situation has become the bane of local communities seeking socioeconomic progress. According to a groundbreaking study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center in 2012, lower standards of living, lower human development, and higher levels of deprivation and inequality persist in the districts governed by local leaders who are members of a political dynasty. A more alarming development is that the ‘fattest’ dynasties—those with the most family members in office—are ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.

Political dynasties are not unique to the Philippines. Frontrunners in the forthcoming US presidential election, such as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, are politicians with pedigree. Indonesia has also recently ‘legalised’ the place of political dynasties in its electoral process.

Mobilising public opinion

In the Philippines, however, political dynasties are hindering the country’s national development aspirations. The links between dynastic politics and the country’s many problems—from Metro Manila’s traffic woes to Mindanao’s power outages—are easily established.

The long and unchallenged reign of these ‘small dictatorships’ has pushed the Philippine political system to rock bottom, at the expense of the vast majority of Filipinos. A positive development, however, is President Benigno Aquino III’s recognition in his valedictory State of the Nation Address of the urgent need to pass an anti-political dynasty law before his term ends in 2016.

Moves to pressure the government and mobilise public opinion to enact such legislation before the present session of Congress adjourns next May are also coming from political scholars, commentators and youth leaders. On 19 August 2015, youth leaders presented a manifesto to the House of Representatives calling for the immediate passage of an anti-political dynasty law.

Even if these efforts fail to motivate legislators to enact such a law, they will not have been a total waste. At the very least, the extensive media coverage should generate enough interest within the electorate to make political dynasties a major campaign issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Main photo:
President Aquino delivering state-of-the union address (Malacañang Photo Bureau).

Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow at the Ateneo School of Government in Metro Manila and a Fellow at the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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