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.