Democratic systems are no strangers to political dynasties. In the United States, some well-known families have been in politics for generations—the Kennedys held an impressive 64-year streak in Congress until 2011 (and staged a comeback only two years later), and earlier this month George P. Bush won the race for Texas Land Commissioner, carrying on the political legacy of his father Jeb Bush, his uncle George W. Bush, and his grandfather George H.W. Bush. Although the idea of political royalty inheriting power seems to cut against equal opportunity, members of such families have been revered throughout history. But political dynasties present a much greater threat to democracy when they control a majority of power in the country. In the Philippines, one study estimated that political dynasties comprised up to 70% of the last Philippine Congress (compared to 6% of the last U.S. Congress). During the last election, one notorious political clan had 80 members running for office. Indeed, Philippine political clans have evolved into the most efficient (and at times, deadly) means of monopolizing power. Various members of the same family often cycle through the same congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral seats in their home province, and it’s not unusual to see an electoral race pitting two members of the same family against each other. In many ways, the dynastic culture of politics has removed meaningful choice from the voters, and exacerbated the pervasiveness of corruption in government.
A possible solution is before the Philippine Congress right now—the Anti-Political Dynasty Bill. This bill would prohibit any spouse or first-degree relation (including parents, siblings, and children) of an incumbent elected official from seeking elected office. Although individuals may run once their relative’s term is up, they may not immediately succeed that relative in the same elected office. (The bill would have a enormous effect on the upcoming 2016 elections—Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has already announced his candidacy, and whose daughter’s term in the Senate runs until 2019, would be precluded from running for President.) At first blush, the bill may seem antidemocratic, as it (temporarily) suspends the rights of many individuals to seek elected office. Still, in the Philippines, where the concentration of political power has bred such a strong culture of corruption, certain rights may need to be sacrificed. It is a drastic problem in need of a drastic solution.
There are several reasons why Congress should pass this bill and limit the influence of political families:
- First, political dynasties corrupt the system of checks and balances. One recent example is Vice President Binay, who, for the past few months, has been under investigation by a Senate Blue Ribbon Committee for alleged corruption. One might question how effective the investigation will be given that Binay’s two daughters are members of Congress. The problem is even more pronounced in smaller localities. By packing every major office, it’s quite easy for clans to organize local militias, siphon off public funding, and perpetuate their rule by cycling through the ranks.
- Second, the centrality of dynasties to politics lowers the costs associated with committing corrupt acts. Even if they face corruption or other criminal charges, political actors can continue to reap the benefits of power by having spouses or children take their seats. After one representative was found guilty of murdering the sons of his political rival, his seat in the House was taken over by his wife, ensuring that the family name remained relevant long enough for him to seek reelection after the appellate court cleared him of all charges.
- Third, the continued success of political families despite corruption charges undermines the rule of law, and perpetuates a system of corruption in government. Well-intentioned individuals are deterred from seeking office, leaving positions open to individuals who view government as an opportunity to amass more wealth and power.
These issues have plagued Philippine politics for countless generations—in fact, the framers of the 1987 Constitution called upon Congress to pass a law to inhibit the power of political clans. Article II, Section 26 of the Constitution states that “[t]he State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” Because the provision is not self-executing, however, it has remained largely meaningless for the past three decades.
And there is a particular reason that the anti-dynasty bill should be passed now. Enacting an anti-dynasty law is no small task for a Congress overrun with the very families it seeks to preclude from office. But after 27 years, efforts to pass such a law have come further than ever before, perhaps in part because of widespread public support the bill garnered after one of the largest corruption scandals in recent memory. For the first time ever, the bill reached the House plenary session, and a Senate version was discussed during a committee hearing weeks later. In his Fifth State of the Nation Address, the President stated that he would immediately sign the Act if it successfully made it through Congress.
Although this bill is quite controversial, it would go a long way toward addressing the highly corrosive nature of political dynasties, and provide opportunities for talented, energetic individuals to challenge the current state of Philippine politics. It’s important that Congress—and the electorate—seize this political moment to ensure the passage of the bill.