By: Ronald U. Mendoza and Jan Fredrick Cruz

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.