By Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, LL.M
There can be no doubt that the Philippine political system is controlled by traditional political families. A Sydney Morning Herald piece in 2012 fittingly called them “dynasty in steroids”. In fact, as the official election campaign period begins back home, the same surnames continue to dominate the field.
The blockbuster film “Heneral Luna” reminds us that dynastic interests of these elites in Filipino society are an ancient socio-political scourge. But it is also an inspirational wake-up call to all of us that we can do something about this.
Political dynasties are actually proscribed in the Philippine Constitution. This is very clear in Section 26 of Article II which reads as follows: “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 actualizing this prohibition necessarily depends on an anti-political dynasty legislation. Unfortunately, the fact that as of the last reckoning at least 75% 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, I believe most Filipinos will concur with the way it was described by the prime mover behind the inclusion of its prohibition in the 1987 Constitution, esteemed legal scholar Jose N. Nolledo, to wit:
“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.”
Ostensibly, the dominance of dynastic politicians has meant that accountability in office is no longer a standard for public service for blood relations would expectedly trump over the public’s demand for checks-and-balance amongst officials in government.
Moreover, this has also led to 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 Colombian academic, Pablo Querubin, in Political Reform and Elite Persistence: Term Limits and Political Dynasties in the Philippines, political elites in the Philippines are so entrenched in their dominant position they have become essentially insulated from political competition.
Sadly, being in this station of privilege and impunity for so long has led to the enculturation of a myopic and parochial governance frame of mind. Clearly demonstrated by the local politico who can only be bothered by short-term projects that have an immediate and perceptible impact and most likely simply as a knee-jerk response to the clamor of the day from his or her supporters.
And worse, as the nation 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” character of the electoral process.
Both these outcomes have become the bane to our country’s socio-economic aspirations. 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 leaders who are members of a political dynasty.
The more alarming development is that the fattest dynasties—those with the most number of family members in elective office—are actually ensconced in the poorest parts of the country.
So can Filipinos defeat political dynasties? The answer is yes. And we must! But we have to take direct and primary responsibility for it.
Each Filipino can give life to this constitutional proscription by simply not voting dynastic politicians this year. But we can all go a step further by passionately convincing others to never cast a vote for a candidate who belongs to a political dynasty.
At the very modest level, this can be accomplished through personal effort by dissuading our friends and relatives back home from voting candidates simply on the grounds of their political pedigree.
A more formal and organized discussion on the debilitating impact of political dynasties on the Philippine political economy enumerated here can be conducted in forums or assemblies with various Fil-Australian groups in attendance.
I must emphasize however that I am not diminishing the importance of enacting an anti-political dynasty law. The presence of such legislation will absolutely play a vital role in the degrading process. But we have to accept that the destruction of political dynasties ultimately lies in the hands of Filipinos.
We can all expect that once we have made family dynasties politically irrelevant, their stranglehold over our country’s political system will be destroyed completely. Genuine patriotic leaders can then finally emerge and be properly recognized.
Michael Yusingco is a Filipino lawyer based in Melbourne with a Masters degree in Law and Development from the University of Melbourne Law School.