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And why Congress should pass an anti-dynasty law

Notwithstanding growing clamor for an anti-dynasty law in order to comply with the Philippine Constitution, some scions of political families invoked vox populi, vox Dei or "Let the people decide".

"It’s the people who will decide, that’s democracy. It’s not like we’re employing guns, goons, and gold to win seats. We leave it to the voters," former President and erstwhile Manila mayoral candidate Joseph Ejercito Estrada argued during the run-up to the 2013 elections.

Similarly, Sen. Ma. Lourdes "Nancy" Binay said she would vehemently oppose any anti-dynasty bill. "At the end of the day, it’s the people who will vote. It’s not a guarantee that if you have the same last name, it will automatically get you elected."

Congressman Joseph “Ace” Durano of Cebu recently noted that “There is no precedent in any republican democracy of such limitation on the universal right of suffrage.”

In fact, when stacked against the mounting evidence both here in the country and abroad, it becomes all too clear that these arguments are deeply flawed. In the guise of respecting the right to run for office and the supremacy of suffrage, some dynasties oppose dynastic restrictions.

Yet, by their very existence and expansion, political dynasties tend to weaken these very same rights for the majority of our citizens that are not members of political clans. The concentration of political power within dynasties excludes many more viable leaders—passionate, patriotic, and dedicated individuals, including many youth leaders, who could contribute to a clean and effective government. But bereft of a readily recognizable family name and resources, they have very little opportunities to serve and lead.

Political dynasties thus violate the very right that some dynastic politicians claim to uphold. With enough concentration of political power the ultimate casualty is political accountability itself. Impunity and corruption do not lie far behind such a failure.

Not all political dynasties in our leadership are guilty of such impunity and corruption—yet they too will suffer from this increasing backlash if the fattest dynasties remain unchecked. The challenge now is to find a reasonable middle ground that preserves the essence of the right to suffrage, regulates political dynasties (but also gives them a chance to run in an orderly manner), re-establishes checks and balances and accountability mechanisms, and improves the inclusiveness and competitiveness of our leadership selection processes.

An anti-dynasty law will begin to bring this about; but it will not be the only reform necessary. Other countries have in fact introduced anti-dynasty elements in their respective constitutions; and these have formed part of wide-ranging reforms to build more inclusive democracies.

Dynasties thrive with more entrenched poverty

There are now several studies confirming the strong links between dynastic prevalence and deep poverty and human deprivation. More striking, the fattest dynasties—those with the most number of family members in elective office—are concentrated in the poorest parts of the country.

Table 1 reveals that the local governments of the Philippines’ poorest provinces contain many political dynasties—with the poorest among them containing the fattest dynasties in the entire country.

In Maguindanao, for example, about two out of every three local government positions are encumbered by dynastic politicians. It also contains one of the fattest dynasties, the Ampatuans.  

Source: AIM Policy Center staff calculations. Figures show poverty incidence as percentage of families living below the annual poverty threshold. Data obtained from Philippine Statistics Authority.

Empirical analysis reveals that the presence of many dynasties (notably fat dynasties) are highly correlated with more severe poverty. And investigating the direction of the causality between dynasties and poverty has so far generated mixed results. But one thing is certain—whether dynasties cause poverty, or poverty entrenches dynasties, either of these connections undermine the foundations of a healthy democracy and economy.

More importantly, the presence of political dynasties, regardless of the direction of causality, signals the existence of gaping social, political, and economic inequalities. These arguments make it abundantly clear that the prevalence and influence of political dynasties should be curbed.

In addition, areas with entrenched dynasties tend to be so poor that they are often also associated with strong patron-client relationships. This is one of the reasons why many voters recognize “utang na loob”, thus sustaining their votes for various members of the local political clan despite entrenched dependency (sometimes over generations).

The connections are circular in many cases. Dynasties “help” the poor by providing various minor programs, payments and outright cash transfers, on the condition that these voters continue to support them in the polls. Yet these very same dynasties may not necessarily fight for the deep structural reforms that truly change the political and economic landscape in their provinces.

Hence we have examples of provinces where dynasties are becoming wealthier and fatter (i.e. more family members in office) while the province remains underdeveloped, or becomes even poorer. For instance, the Tans of Western Samar have presided over that province for close to two decades now. Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, however, reveal that poverty incidence in Western Samar has risen from 32% in 2006 to 44% in 2012.

Also, the Romualdos have been in power for almost three decades in Camiguin. Again, official data reveal that poverty increased from 31% in 2006 to 41% in 2012.  

One family--the Buluts--has controlled Apayao ever since the province was created in 1995. The gubernatorial and congressional positions there have been dominated by the same family for two consecutive decades.

In Apayao, where the governor, district representative, and five of its seven mayors belong to political dynasties, government statistics show that the province grew poorer by almost five thousand families in 2012 compared to 2006, leading to the current situation where half of families in the province are considered poor.

To be sure, there are some political dynasties whose terms coincided with development in their areas. In different periods, the Osmenas in Cebu, Ortegas in La Union, Gordons in Subic and the Hagedorns in Palawan are examples of political families that have been friendly to many important reforms that helped unleash economic growth.

However, extensive empirical research also shows that on average, and when taking the country in its totality, political dynasties are NOT associated with development. In fact, the complete opposite could be observed particularly for the fattest dynasties that have managed to consolidate political (and perhaps also economic) power in their respective jurisdictions (or what could be considered as modern day “fiefdoms”).

The key reason for this adverse result often has to do with the breakdown in the checks-and-balances in local government. Governors related to Mayors, Congressmen and Provincial Board Members leads to governance networks that create perverse incentives to favor family members instead of what’s fair and development oriented.

And this often cannot be corrected due to the very same network of power. Studies have shown that pork barrel funds, for example, benefited many fat dynasties due precisely to their bias for family members.

Dynasties restrict choice

As noted earlier, some members of political clans have argued that they are the popularly elected candidates of the people, and so no one should curtail their ability to keep on running for office or field more of their relatives for elections. Popularity is often confused with “name recall” which is often a key advantage of political dynasties that have persisted for many years (some spanning over 100 years).

The more telling critique of this claim lies in the candidates “on offer” to the voters with every election. A careful analysis will reveal that political dynasties—through a combination of name recall, control of many elective positions and also (it seems) increasing wealth—are already curtailing the ability of other leaders to run for office.

Figure 1. Outcomes of the 2013 Gubernatorial Elections

Source: AIM Policy Center staff calculations.
Notes: DYN=Dynasty / NONDYN=Non-Dynasty / UNCON=Uncontested

Figure 2. Outcomes of the 2013 Mayoral Elections

Source: AIM Policy Center staff calculations.
Notes: DYN=Dynasty / NONDYN=Non-Dynasty / UNCON=Uncontested

Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the argument that Filipino voters are not afforded a lot of choices during elections. When one focuses on the top 2 vote-getters of the elections, 40 of the gubernatorial candidates, or about half of the available governorships, ran and won against dynastic rivals. Hence, even before election day, the guaranteed winner will come from a political dynasty.

Similarly, 425 dynastic mayoral candidates ran and won against their dynastic rivals. Put differently, the most “winnable” candidates are oftentimes those who come from political families.  This is not surprising because of the advantages that they could afford themselves—advantages that increase disproportionately as a political clan successfully fields more relatives into office.

In our analysis, in fact, the fattest dynasties systematically decimate not only non-dynastic politicians but also “thinner” dynasties (or those that have 2 or less family members in office). In many provinces, this may have created the perverted incentives for a “race to be fat” among the dynasties.

As an aside, more reasonable members of political clans have since noted to this author that the present “law of the jungle” cannot continue. And some have noted that rules of the game need to be introduced in order to bring back credibility and accountability in public office.


Dynasties weaken democracies

The Philippines’ challenge is not unique; and there is extensive international evidence on how other countries sought to curb dynasties. In 1986, the framers of the Philippine Constitution, included Article II, Section 26: “[t]he State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.”

Similarly crafted dynastic restrictions are also found in the legislation of Latin American countries like Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, as indicated in Table 2. In most cases—and unlike in the Philippine Constitution—the definition of political dynasty is already explicitly defined in these countries’ constitutions and laws.

Source: AIM Policy Center staff research on various constitutions and legislation in the LAC region.

Identified above are the elective public offices where the prohibition applies. Given the series of amendments and revisions of the Panama charter in the previous three decades, it is hard to determine when exactly the dynastic prohibition provision was inserted to the Constitution.

Most of these countries’ political reforms fall under the so-called "third wave of democratization," a term popularized by noted political scientist Samuel Huntington to denote the years between 1974 and 1990 when many developing countries overthrew dictatorships and sought to establish more democratic traditions.

Our analysis of their key economic and political indicators suggests that there was no major change in their economic trajectory after dynasties were prohibited. We interpret this as a rebuke of the argument that dynasties introduce economic stability and policy continuity, both of which investors prefer. On the contrary, other factors are likely to be more important for investors than the presence of dynastic continuity.

Nevertheless, on key indicators of political inclusiveness and democratic health, these countries improved dramatically after they introduced restrictions on dynasties. The competitiveness of political participation, the openness and competitiveness of recruitment in the political leadership, and public participation in democracy through actual electoral performance of political parties and voter turnout, were among some of the factors that appeared to improve once dynasties were restricted from expanding.

All of this reinforces the view by most of the framers of our Constitution that an anti-dynasty clause is needed in order to keep democratic health and development on track. The substantial delay in the enactment of this law called for by our Constitution—now almost 30 years old—has likely contributed to many more dysfunctions that we see today, including vote buying, impunity in the exercise of political power, and the continued emasculation of political parties.

Open the doors from the inside

Although the dynastic prohibition supporters won over the skeptics in the 1986 Constitutional Commission, paving way for its inclusion in the ratified 1987 Constitution, no Congress since 1987 has managed to seriously push a draft bill through---save for the 16th Congress.

In 2015, the 16th Congress managed to push the draft bill beyond the Second Committee discussions. The President’s call in his last SONA to pass an anti-dynasty law gives it the additional political force that many hope will be enough to get it through.

Many question whether dynastic politicians in Congress will support such a law, when they have so much to lose from this restriction. One hopes that there are still true leaders in the Congress and the Senate who would, in their enlightened self-interest, open the door from the inside and help build a more inclusive political leadership.

Our own political calculus also suggests that the most pragmatic version of the bill—one that allows a maximum of only two family members—could actually garner enough votes in both houses of Congress.

Following the aforementioned definition, up to 208 representatives could be amenable to this specific form of dynastic regulation (i.e. these are the representatives who have at most one relative in another elective post). This number constitutes slightly over 70% of the House of Representatives – more than enough to push an anti-dynasty bill into a law.

The 16th Congress and President Benigno Aquino III can yet land in history as the Congress and President that finally honored the 1987 Constitution and the framers’ aspirations for a more inclusive democracy. -NB/JJ, GMA News

*This article is co-authored by Ron Mendoza, David Yap and Fred Cruz. The analysis draws on the study “Does dynastic prohibition improve democracy?” AIM Policy Center Working Paper 15-010

The views expressed herein are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the Asian Institute of Management.