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What is wrong with political dynasties? 

Recent surveys for the 2013 senatorial elections paint a familiar picture: many top-ranked candidates are either re-electionists or relatives of incumbent or former politicians. This, once again, prompts a discussion on political dynasties, whether this is an issue that should concern voters in the upcoming elections or something that can be accepted as part of our representative democracy.  

In principle, there is nothing wrong with political dynasties. In practice, however, its prevalence exemplifies the exclusionary power structure in the Philippines, where local elites continue to exert considerable influence in our country. 

Illustration by Analyn Perez

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile has said in an interview that dynasties have existed since politics was invented. Dynastic politics is not unique to the Philippines, he added, citing the example of the Kennedys and Roosevelts in the United States. Following the footsteps of one’s parents or relatives is not in itself unacceptable so why should politics be any different?  

Part of the answer lies in the historic character of electoral politics in the Philippines. Dante Simbulan’s pioneering study described the Philippines as an elite democracy where elections have been institutionalized to manage intra-elite competition. Elections have formalized the process of political succession through a periodic democratic exercise which can be easily manipulated for selfish ends. Elite rule is legitimized through this process by giving the illusion that the public has the power to choose its leaders, even though the pool of electable candidates is generally limited to a set of individuals with familiar surnames.  

Based on this analysis, one can make an argument that political dynasties are mere post-colonial legacies. To this extent, Enrile is correct – that dynasties have existed since the beginning of Philippine politics. They are social realities that can be traced to the emergence of a cacique class from the Spanish colonial era and, in several cases, the creation of new elites under the Marcos regime. These de facto nobilities are able to stay in power by addressing the needs of their constituents through the strategic distribution of patronage masking as “public service” and the maintenance of compadre ties. To put it crudely, dynastic politicians are not entirely to blame, given that they too are products of the principalía’s evolution into the modern day elite.  

To accept this as part of our contemporary reality, however, is to be oblivious of political dynasties’ abuse of our weak democratic structures. One of the main promises of representative democracy is its commitment to future redistribution of material wealth and political power that were accumulated through historic injustices. What’s wrong with political dynasties is that instead of working towards the creation of equitable political structures, they have further strengthened the barriers to political inclusion of traditionally disenfranchised citizens such as peasants, workers, indigenous and other minority groups. In his research, Pablo Querubin has found a causal effect between winning elections and having relatives in office. In particular, “individuals who win their first race by a small margin” are “four times more likely to have relatives in office in the future” compared to “individuals who run but lose by a narrow margin and never serve.” These findings are revealing in that they expose how relatives of previous incumbents exclusively benefit from the political investments of their predecessors which, in turn, consolidates disproportionate political power in a few families.  

This is particularly troubling because in the Philippines, political power is closely linked to economic power. It is unlike other countries that have a distinct political class of civil servants and technocrats that are relatively autonomous from oligarchic interests and, in the case of South Korea, can discipline economic elites. Instead, as John Sidel argues, politicians in the Philippines have “monopolistic control over both coercive and economic resources within given territorial jurisdictions or bailiwicks.” Consequently, concentration of political power among a few families benefits a narrow set of economic interests over a period of time, institutionalizes economic inequalities and perpetuates a culture of dependency between an economically/politically dominant patron and an otherwise disenfranchised client. It is not accidental that provinces with established political dynasties are also among the poorest.  

The trend of political dynasties has also served to limit the liberating potential of democratic politics. It undermines the principle of political equality in its most basic form through the principle of one person, one vote. While this right is often qualified by saying that voters usually end up choosing between tweedledum and tweedledee, virtually unopposed political dynasties do not even make room for tweedledee. The seeming inheritability of political positions is reminiscent of an oppressive absolutist state, where citizens are mere subjects that have no choice but to affirm the dictates of a ruling family rather than active citizens that are able to shape their political destiny.  

By making this argument, I do not mean to discredit dynastic politicians who, through their actions, have expressed commitment to reform Philippine politics. Congressman Erin Tañada has been at the forefront of institutionalizing transparency through the Freedom of Information Bill. Senator Pia Cayetano has strengthened the system of rights through the Magna Carta for Women and the RH bill. Senator TG Guingona has been the champion of participatory modes of governance in budget reform. It is indisputable that some dynastic politicians have a good track record of advocating progressive policies but these individual achievements have done little in dismantling the structures that perpetuate political exclusion in a representative democracy. It is only when a person who has worked up the ranks in a political organization can stand an equal chance of being elected with a candidate with a political last name can we consider dynasties as fair practices in a democratic process.  

So where do we go from here? A viable option is to strengthen alternative political spaces for the public to organize and secure meaningful inclusion in the political process. Electoral politics has become so crowded with dynastic politicians, requiring mechanisms for citizen participation that are relatively independent of electoral politics. Political scientists describe this as “democracy from below” or the practice of democracy through people’s organizations, non-government organizations, social movements, new political parties and social networks that oppose elite politics and espouse new politics. Indeed, Philippine politics has been historically driven by bottom-up struggles for social justice and accountability. Grassroots political activities have ousted presidents, raised wages, and guarded ballot boxes. Hopefully, these democratic impulses eventually translate to systemic reform where the citizenry can effectively enforce democratic control over its politico-economic elites. That way, to paraphrase candidate Bam Aquino’s hubristic statement, Aquinos don’t have to become President every time there’s a political crisis. – GMA News  

Nicole Curato, PhD is Assistant Professor in Sociology at University of the Philippines Diliman. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University and is the current Associate Editor of Manila Review.