The Philippines Must Break the Power of Political Dynasties

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.

14 thoughts on “The Philippines Must Break the Power of Political Dynasties

  1. As you note, Bea, this bill has the potential to bring about real reform, and it is impressive that it’s made so far through the political process. I also share your instinct that, while the bill would impinge on the rights of those affected, it would be a sacrifice worth making given the specific context. My one concern would be that, perversely, if the bill worked well it could actually bring about too much reform, with significant adverse effects on the ability of the government to function. It’s conceivable that those raised to take over/cycle through their relatives posts are also the most adept at governance, if only due to the fact that they (and their grandparents, parents, cousins, etc.) have occupied the positions for so long. Those kept out of the system, while possibly less corrupt, may also be unschooled in how a government works. The whole reason that the bill is necessary is that such a high percentage (up to 70%) of elected officials are from political dynasties, but, conceivably, barring (I’m making this number up) half of that 70% could also cripple the government, which may in turn make it easier for corrupt actors to come to power or for members of dynasties who remain in power to outmaneuver less experienced and unaffiliated newly elected non-dynastic officials. Kicking out corrupt actors is a good thing, but in the Philippines it could possibly pass a tipping point?

    • I had a similar initial reaction, Melanie. To be fair, an anti-dynasty law would likely have a naturally gradual impact, given staggered voting in the Senate, varying terms, the probable re-election of many incumbents, etc. But the law would have the collateral effect of replacing a large portion of the legislators who have facilitated corruption. Some commentators thinks these “shocks” are beneficial and other jurisdictions have experimented with radical personnel changes in their efforts to root out corruption (Mexico, for example, purges its local police forces not infrequently and dismissed about 10% of its federal police officers a few years ago). These moves are predicated on the notion that the problem of corruption is personal, not structural. Likely, in part, for that reason, widespread dismissals have largely been unsuccessful (see Mexico’s repeated purges). I know the anti-dynasty law would be a structural change but, like others, I wonder what else must be done to recalibrate the underlying political environment that enables corruption.

  2. Great post Bea. As you note, there’s a decidedly antidemocratic bent to this law which I find to be somewhat troubling (though you’ve laid out a very strong case for why such an extreme measure might be necessary in this case). One question this post raised for me is whether removing members of these families from office will suffice to truly tackle the problem of these political dynasties. If the goal is simply to ensure that the number of political officials who are related to each other in Congress drops below 70% this bill will likely be effective. However, isn’t it also possible that these families will react to this law by channeling their efforts into electing individuals who, while not related to them, will nonetheless serve to support their interests? The extent to which we presume such efforts would be effective may depend in large part upon why we believe that these families are so successful at being elected. If we believe their success can be attributed to name-recognition, it may be somewhat difficult to transfer this advantage to another candidate. However, if it’s simply greater financial resources then it may be possible for candidates who are beholden to these families to gain political office fairly easily with their assistance.

    I’m not quite sure how best to address this problem (absent even more extreme measures than those proposed in this bill). The best suggestion that I’ve been able to come up with is that it may make sense, if this bill is successfully passed, to provide accompanying legislation that encourages independent candidates to run for political office (perhaps by providing funding for political campaigns). Nonetheless, while I think there may be reason to believe that this bill may not be as effective as we might hope in addressing political dynasties, there is little doubt that it is a step in the right direction.

    • Lauren – you raise some great points about the reason behind the success of political families. I agree that the bill will not be as effective against families that owe their success to greater financial resources. So, you’re probably right that accompanying legislation is needed—perhaps through increased funding for independent candidates, or through greater transparency with regard to sources of funding.

      But I do want to stress that the anti-dynasty bill is a way to address the problem of name recognition, which, in the Philippines, is not to be underestimated. And I think the bill is significant because this is a particularly difficult problem to address.

      To give you a sense of how central name recognition is to Philippine politics, it’s not completely unusual for candidates to list a well-known relative’s name as their “nickname” on the ballot. Thus, a son running for his father’s seat after his father’s term limits run out can list his father’s name on the ballot. In a recent case arising from a gubernatorial race in the Philippines, the Supreme Court said that doing this does not mislead the voters.

      Therefore, while I agree this bill is limited in its scope, I want to stress again that what the bill does set out to address is significant in the context of Philippine politics.

  3. Bea — Thanks for writing about this bill. I think that you’ve made a fascinating case for why a somewhat antidemocratic measure may be needed to save the very democracy on which it operates. But to better help me formulate an opinion about the potential costs and benefits of this legislation, I wanted to ask if you could clarify the scope of the bill. You mention that it bars a person from seeking “elected office” while their spouse or first-degree family member is in an elected office. I’m not sure how broadly the statute defines “elected office,” though. Does it apply only to national offices, like President or seats in the national legislature? Or does it reach as far as elections for local municipality or town-wide positions?

    If it’s the former, I wonder whether that really solves the corruption problem in the Philippines. If part of the problem is that different political dynasties often control government in different regions of the country, then it would seem that the bill — to really get to the root of the everyday problem.

    If it’s the latter, then I wonder whether there might be different arguments for targeting political dynasties at the national level than there are for doing the same at the local level. Is it more urgent to remove dynasties from positions of national power because they wield the power and control the fate of the entire nation? Or is it more important to loosen the grip of the big political families on the local elected officials because those offices have a more frequent and substantial impact on the daily lives of people in the Philippines?

    • Thanks for your questions, Jordan. The bill covers both national and local elected office. For national office, first-degree relatives and spouses would be banned from running for elective office in the province where the incumbent is a registered voter. For local office, first-degree relatives and spouses would be banned from running for office in the same province in the same election. In all cases, no prohibited family members may succeed an incumbent in the same office.

      As to your question about targeting the different levels of government, it’s difficult to say. I am inclined to think that local elections may be more problematic, because a clan can more easily take over every branch of government and even amass a local militia using provincial resources. Here, again, I think of the family that had 80 people running in a recent election. This clan is a more dominant force in their regional scene—and has even been attributed to a mass murder committed against supporters of a rival candidate—but not necessarily in national politics. Perhaps, because they cover a smaller area, local politicians run greater risks with regard to democratic values. Still, I wouldn’t discount the influence that a name in national politics can have on the entire country.

  4. Interesting post Bea, thanks for contributing. I share your concern about the effect of dynastic politics. Unfortunately, I think the proposed bill misses the mark almost entirely. It is both under-inclusive in the sense that it doesn’t target wrongful behavior, and over-inclusive in the sense that it sweeps up political office contenders based on their bloodline rather than their actions. I certainly appreciate that the Philippines is in a fairly unique situation with regards to political dynasties (though perhaps not entirely unique–many Indian states have shockingly common political dynasties as well), but doubling down on classifying individuals by bloodline misses the basic cause, and I suspect is unlikely to be successful.

    The root of the problem here isn’t bloodline per se. The issue is that individuals abuse power for personal gain, and use powerful networks to cover their backs and siphon off public funds. That’s *easier* to do when your relatives are in power, but the City of Chicago demonstrates that creative politicians are capable of systematically abuse power with their cronies, no relatives involved.

    My point is this: At heart, the problem is that individuals are getting something (say a certain parliamentary seat) because of their ancestry rather than their merit. What we want is a strictly merit-based system. So using bloodline as dispositive factor in determining a candidate’s eligibility to run for office is exactly backwards. Assuming the bill is executed flawlessly, it’s still drawing distinctions based on heredity rather than merit–which is precisely what we wanted to get away from in the first place. If the current system is unjust, we need to figure out a way to get at bad behavior now. With the VP, for example, perhaps a hyper-independent prosecutor would be better equipped than the Senate to investigate. Or maybe rotating law enforcement officials between districts could help ferret out crime and decrease back-scratching. Or specially rewarding prosecutors for recovering pilfered funds from politicians could help …

    It’s true that prior efforts have fallen somewhat flat. But I suspect that’s because Philippine politics is working *very well* for the chosen few. Even assuming you could get a bill through that significantly disadvantaged today’s office holders, I’d imagine invested power-brokers would still find a way to frustrate it’s purpose. That’s somewhat unavoidable. But that effect could be mitigated if the measures taken resulted in clear punishment for wrongful actors. In other words, if there is support for going after abuse of power by political families, I suspect it would be more useful in the long run to capitalize on that through a couple of high-profile prosecutions and fines than by barring their children from office for a few years.

  5. Great post Bea. I agree with Julissa’s point that of the need to a merit-based system for it seems equally unfair to exclude a well-qualified person on grounds of his bloodlines as the case of appointing an unqualified person on the same ground. However, I would like to add that recent developing countries’ strives to democracy have shown that the most effective means were the gradual and transitional ones as evidenced by the political experience of south Africa compared to many Arab Spring countries. Thence my suggestion is to adopt a transnational or interim prohibition for 10 years or two parliamentary cycles. The point off Transitional provision to achieve the required destabilization of existing power and to get some fresh blood in the political and executive system which paves the way for a future objective criteria as those suggested by Julissa.

  6. While it can be debated whether bills like this are anti-democratic, the root of the problem remains the connection between political power and economic power, or in a corrupt country like the Philippines, the ability to not only influence resources, but also to dictate where these resources go, thus ensuring the dynasty itself. The other side of the problem lies in the ability of the elected official to “recover” the costs of getting elected.

    Great Post, Bea……

  7. Fantastic post Bea. It has really set me thinking.

    I share your frustration about the level of corruption and other shenanigans that take place in the Philippines. I also really liked Julissa’s points about the ultimate goal being a meritocracy. So while the bill has distinct advantages of being a conceptually simple fix, would it really work to fix the problem? Would the fix itself be easy to work around or create new problems?

    In your blog you say “In many ways, the dynastic culture of politics has… exacerbated the pervasiveness of corruption in government.” I think it would be interesting to examine the links and actual mechanisms for how the dynasties cause corruption. I would expect to find that the mechanisms are already largely illegal, but there are failures of enforcement. For example, the Maguindanao killers have not been tried. I think, as a consequence of the justice delayed the witnesses are slowly being killed, making their eventual trial increasingly difficult to prosecute. What message does this send?

    As a democracy, are we saying that the voters are freely electing demonstrably bad politicians? If so, why are they doing this? Term limits that [should] prevent a future Marcos, also eliminate future FD Roosevelts, or PNoys, and such limits are anti-democratic. Similarly the proposed legislation in seeking to limit potential bad politicians, would also limit good ones. Can we look to the roots of the problem to see if there is a better medicine, with fewer side-effects?

    It seems that well-intentioned but democracy limiting laws eventually have undesirable consequences. Like “wack-a-mole”, won’t unfocused legislation be ineffective and encourage work-arounds to spring up?

  8. Great post, Bea.

    It is well-known, even among Filipinos, that political dynasties promote a culture of corruption. Unfortunately, it is already part of our contemporary reality and, if we want things to turn around in the Philippines, it must be stopped. I would like to raise two points that I believe are important in the fight against this generational manipulation of power, with or without a law prohibiting it:

    First, the citizens must understand the history of Philippine political dynasty and how it perpetuates corruption. Political dynasty is as old as the Philippine politics itself. From the cacique class of semi-feudal Spanish colonial era to the so-called new elites of the Marcos regime, it permeates the political spectrum of society. The political elites are also the economic elites. This is unlike other countries that distinctly identify members of the political class from those of the oligarchic class. Because of this class overlap, the main goal in running for office is to either ensure wealth preservation or increase it, or both. I believe the recent developments in the anti-corruption campaign weaken this incentive. For example, the recent Supreme Court decision striking down “pork barrel” as unconstitutional removed one of the biggest economic incentives of congressmen in running for office. We are off to a good start then. The goal is to remove these incentives one at a time.

    Second, there is a need to change the mentality of the Filipino people. Why do people keep voting them back time and time again? In this regard, voting education is key and the role of civil society is paramount. Technology and social media would be great partners in this endeavor. According to a World Bank study, 37% of the Philippine population use the internet. Why not use that medium to promote meritocracy for example? However, I recognize that this is a very difficult and painful process because of the well-entrenched culture of “utang na loob” (no exact English translation, but basically means reciprocity) and compadre or godfather system in the Philippines.

  9. Great post Bea. As you pointed out the framers of the 1987 Philippine Constitution saw it fit to prohibited political dynasties signalling a clear command for the state to guarantee the democratization of opportunities to public service and to break up a still virtually feudal structure represented by the concentration of resources in the hands of a few. And yet at the time this fundamental law was finalized and ratified the term political dynasties was already fully understood by the entire nation in the light of its political experience as the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few families. The Constitutional Commission were not elected by the people but appointed by revolutionary President, who had the clear unfettered authority to reject and dismantle political dynasties through an outright self executory constitutional proscription. Why she equivocated or agreed to an agonizing compromise and leave the definition of the term to the other political branch of government that was expected to drag its feet on a vital concern is unsettling and as perplexing as addressing the problem itself.

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