Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017



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Pros and Cons of Dynasties

           As mandated by the Philippine Constitution, there is a plan of the present Congress to pass an anti-dynasty legislation by June of this year.  Although political dynasties are not unique to the Philippines (just consider the Clintons and Bushes in the United States), the authors of Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, pointed out in an article that appeared in their blog last January 2013 that “the extent to political dynasties in the Philippines is off the chart compared to any other country in the world.  Sixty percent of congress people elected in 2007 had a previous relatives who were also in congress.  To give some sense of how high this is, the analogous figure in the US was 7 percent.  In roughly half of the 80 provinces of the Philippines the governor is related to one of the congress people.” James Robinson was recently in town to speak in an investment summit sponsored by the Financial Times and the First Metro Investment Corporation.

          Acemoglu and Robinson rightly observed that the seeds of political dynasties were planted by the US during its colonization of the Philippines in the early part of the last century.  In the first elections organized by the US, the candidates were limited to the elite families called the cacique, chosen by the Americans as a way of controlling the native population:  to set up an oligarchy which became a way of life in the Philippines.  This in turn led to very long-run family advantages.  The example cited was the Veloso family in Leyte.   A member of the Veloso family has been either a congress-person or the governor since 1916.  They estimated that being a member of a political dynasty massively increases one’s probability of being elected to any political office.  The authors cited  the findings of Pablo Querubin in his research “Family and Politics:  Dynastic Persistence in the Philippines” that showed that it could have been the initial conditions imposed by the US during the Commonwealth that shaped political dynasties and perhaps even the origins of the power of political dynasties in the first place.

          In another blog that appeared on December 26, 2012, the authors   commented on the views of political scientist Benedict Anderson, whose 1988 article in the New Left Review “Cacique Democracy in the Philippines:  Origins and Dreams” laid out a theory of the political economy of the Philippines.  Anderson was pessimistic in 1988 about the future of the Philippines after the so-called  People Power revolution because he saw that the Marcos dictatorship was followed by the return of the oligarchy:  “The truth is that the President, born Corazon Cojuangco, is a member of one of the wealthiest and most powerful dynasties within the Filipino oligarchy…Her marriage to Benigno Aquino, Jr., at various periods Governor of Tarlac and Senator, linked her to another key dynasty of Central Luzon.” 

          One should not wonder why after 28 years, a dynasty-controlled congress has failed to pass legislation providing a definition of “political dynasty.”   I am not surprised, having been a member of the Constitutional Constitution that drafted the Philippine Constitution in 1986.   A good number of the Commissioners—not politicians themselves—raised serious objections against dynastic prohibition.  The arguments against prohibiting political dynasties can be summarized as follows:  1) Competent individuals may be excluded from the electoral process just because they are related to incumbent or past politicians; 2) prohibition could be anti-democratic, infringing  on the right to vote and to be voted for; 3) there must be equal access to public office of every citizen; 4) the existence of political dynasties is just a symptom of deeply rooted socio-economic structures that must be directly addressed;  and 5) political dynasties, as analogous to family enterprises, can address the serious problem of short-termism, the inability of political leaders to formulate and implement long-term solutions to long-term problems, such as infrastructures and governance reforms.  Because these objections had a lot of weight in the debates, the pro-prohibition side agreed to a very watered down provision worded as follows:  “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”  In short, the Commissioners passed the buck to future Congresses.

          Those who favored the anti-dynasty prohibition maintained, however, that the provision will widen political opportunities because they will lead to equal conditions under which candidates can run for public office.  The experience in the Philippines has shown that political dynasties create unequal access to public office because of the advantages to the relatives and family members.  There is enough evidence that political dynasties use their authority to increase their political  and economic dominance, which in turn are used to fund their elections and the elections of relatives.  Access to public office enables dynastic politicians to prevent the implementation of laws that ensure fairness during campaign and elections.  Many dynastic politicians simply use their time in office to cultivate a personality cult based on name recall and an extensive network of connections, symbolic resources that they can transfer from one family member to another.

          Finally, the most convincing arguments in favor of prohibiting political dynasties is put forth in a working paper coming from the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center for Competitiveness.  The paper reasoned that the main issue in political dynasties is conflict of interest, not competence; the “police power” of the State could be invoked to justify regulation of political rights that may be exercised against the common good; a potential dynastic prohibition would not preclude equal opportunities for public office as long as restrictions would be reasonable and objective; and the new forms of clan politics that may arise from evolving structures of society and the economy may warrant having a law that is distinct from other pieces of legislation that address other social and economic problems.  These arguments for and against dynastic prohibition are now being serious evaluated by members of the Philippine Congress.  Only time will tell whether an anti-dynasty law will ever be passed by a Congress in which political dynasties predominate.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.