In 2011, the academic Björn Dressel wrote an article entitled, ‘The Philippines: how much real democracy?’. Such a noteworthy query because the Philippines played an important role in the democratization wave that passed through Asia in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. It was the first country in the region to topple an authoritarian regime, ousting the dictator Ferdinand Marcos via direct citizen action in 1986. But three decades on, the democratization trajectory of the Philippines is indeed, still a curious case.
Pertinently, Dressel correctly sees the paradox that has plagued the country all these years. On one hand, he acknowledges “signs of a vibrant democracy” such as high voter turnout, robust civic engagement, and institutional arrangements that aim to promote and safeguard human rights and civil liberties. But on the other hand, he points to “flaws in the democratic process” exemplified by elite domination of both politics and governance.
This privileged and influential segment of the Filipino polity, or “political dynasties”, has been a constant feature since the Spanish colonial period. And while elite families in politics are not unique to the Philippines at all, the magnitude of Filipino political dynasties brings unwelcome notoriety. They have been described by an Australian journalist as “dynasty on steroids”.
The paper published by the Ateneo Policy Center entitled, “From Fat to Obese: Political Dynasties after the 2019 Midterm Elections,” differentiates the scale and depth of political dynasties into two categories. A “thin dynasty” is one where the mantle of public office is passed on amongst family members sequentially. Elections are used by political dynasty members to succeed one another in holding political posts.
On the other hand, the term “fat dynasty” refers to a family of politicians simultaneously holding public office. Multiple members of the clan all participate in elections at the same time, running for different posts. Notably, data gathered over the past 6 election periods show that political dynasties have become fatter.
Studies have likewise shown that 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. But a more alarming development is that the ‘fattest’ dynasties are actually entrenched in the poorest parts of the country.
Dynastic politicians maintain a firm grip on political power by leveraging their positions in government. Hence, patronage politics consistently undermine problem-oriented policymaking and legislation. The state remains unable to implement social and political reforms that ensure economic development benefits all Filipinos.
As the 2022 elections draw closer, it is good to remind voters that the gross expansion of political dynasties over the course of three decades sustains a political culture steeped in corruption and clientelism. This is precisely the reason why public administration in the country, including policymaking at the top level of the executive branch and even the legislative process itself, consistently earns poor marks in democracy indices.
Political dynasties manifest democratic decay in the Philippines because they exemplify the incremental degradation of constitutional democracy in the country. Their domination of the political system has sustained the dysfunction afflicting state governance and has made electoral politics essentially a “choosing the lesser evil” proposition for Filipinos.
As the first step to counteract this dangerous trend, Filipinos should internalize the rallying cry of Pasig City voters in 2019, “Iba naman!”
Bionote: The author is Senior Research Fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government. He lives in Macleod, Victoria.