Politics: All in the Family in the Philippines

With the 2016 general election looming in the Philippines, it is likely that two of the three leading candidates will represent a political dynasty – current Vice President Jejomar Binay, who heads a political clan; Manuel A. Roxas II is the son of former Sen. Gerry Roxas and the grandson of former Philippine President Manuel Roxas. The third – and leading – candidate, Grace Poe, is the daughter of the late movie actor Fernando Poe, who ran for President against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the daughter of a former president.

Nowhere in the world are political dynasties more persistent or as influential as the Philippines, a former US and Spanish colony with its own curious brand of democratic politics. Nearly all the presidents after the peaceful overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in 1986 are scions of powerful political clans.

The only exception is Joseph Estrada, a popular movie actor elected in 1998, but who was later forced to step down from office after corruption charges and a massive protest similar to the one that threw out Marcos. The incumbent president, Benigno S. Aquino III, is a child of a former president.

Certainly, dynasties represent a recurring phenomenon for other countries. The number of dynastic legislators can range from as low as 6 percent and 10 percent in the United States and Argentina respectively, to as high as 42 percent and 75 percent in Thailand and the Philippines respectively.

But while political dynasties are present in many democracies, they are much more pervasive in Asian countries that do not have well-functioning political institutions, notably properly working political parties. In the Philippines, the pervasiveness of family members running for public office simultaneously or in succession has been so pronounced that local observers cannot describe Philippine politics without mentioning the term “political dynasties”—referring to politicians with relatives in elective positions in the past or present. Alfred McCoy of the University of Wisconsin and a long time scholar of Asian politics even went on to describe the Philippine government as “an anarchy of families.”

The twin sides of inequality

Political dynasties, particularly in developing democracies where they have become so prevalent, essentially reflect a deep inequality in political life. Political power is increasingly concentrated, not in political parties that advance certain policy platforms, but in political clans that tend to perpetuate themselves in public office.

In the Philippines, analysts observe that “fat dynasties”—those political clans with many family members in public office—are prized recruits for political parties that want to consolidate political power. Instead of the difficult route of developing young leaders under a shared party platform, most of the political parties are either built around these powerful dynasties, or very well-known personalities. Estrada for example created his own party to support his run for the presidency when his original party did not select him as the candidate. Either way, personality and family politics dominates over discussions of political platforms and specific policy options.

In a country where at least a quarter of the population is poor, then the question is whether this inequality in political power is inimical to inclusive growth and development as well.

Research by economists from the University of the Philippines and the Asian Development Bank find evidence that provinces in the Philippines with more political dynasties in office tend to exhibit slower growth in average incomes. Highly dynastic provinces also lag in achieving the Millennium Development Goals when compared to their less dynastic counterparts. More recent research by the Asian Institute of Management finds that while politicians from these powerful clans tend to be richer than their non-dynastic counterparts, their constituents also tend to face more severe poverty conditions when compared to regions with less dynastic politicians.

Do dynasties keep people poor? Or do poor people keep on voting for dynasties? Whichever the answer, there is growing evidence that democratic ideals are being eroded, notably when dynasties become pervasive at the local government level. Checks and balances are clearly at risk; and the competitiveness of elections becomes suspect as certain families combine advantages of name-recall, incumbency advantage, and long-standing relationships with poor constituents (including widely practiced patronage politics).

Regulating dynasties

In some countries, reformists—even among the dynastic clans—are pushing for better rules that curb dynastic growth. In Latin America, for example, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Paraguay are among the countries with laws and constitutional restrictions against dynastic politics.

This has not stopped all efforts by dynasties to continue to perpetuate themselves. For instance, Sandra Torres de Colom, the wife of then President Alvaro Colom in Guatemala, was nominated by her husband’s political party to run for the 2011 presidential elections. This contradicted the constitutional prohibition on relatives of the incumbent President from running to succeed the latter in office. Torres even divorced her husband in an attempt to sidestep the ban, but the high court successfully scuttled her candidacy as anti-constitutional.

On the other hand, the Philippines’ 1987 constitution also bans political dynasties, but its framers left the duty of defining what constitutes a political dynasty to a heavily dynastic Congress. At least a dozen legislative bills defining political dynasties have been filed since 1987, but none so far has prospered. Nevertheless, advocates of the Anti-Dynasty Law seem to have good reason for guarded optimism. In a recent speech before the national legislature, President Aquino surprised the public by supporting the immediate passage of this law.

Aquino, also a member of a political clan, relates the regulation of political dynasties to his anti-corruption drive. In recent years, well known political families like the Marcoses, Revillas, Estradas, Binays and Enriles have been mired in corruption allegations. And as they have accumulated considerable political influence, some may have almost reached near-untouchable status.

Safeguarding the inclusivity of political institutions and strengthening democratic practices appears critical to stronger governance and more sustained and inclusive development. Inequality in economics will be difficult to solve if inequality in politics continues to frustrate reform efforts. In the end, many dynastic elites will need to open the doors to a more inclusive political system from the inside, if they want to preserve their legacy and avoid the total erosion of credibility in democracy.

Ronald U. Mendoza, PhD, is an economist and faculty member of the Asian Institute of Management. Jan Fredrick Cruz is a research associate of the Rizalino S. Navarro Policy Center for Competitiveness. The opinion of the authors does not represent the official views of their institutions.