Self-serving political dynasties weaken our State, keep our people poor, and our country undeveloped.

A Boholano’s View by Jose “Pepe” Abueva

The Bohol Chronicle

April 28, 2013

What is a political dynasty? In our country ruled by a political oligarchy of rich and powerful families, a political dynasty refers to relatives who enjoy a monopoly of electoral political power to the disadvantage of rival leaders and the general public. In this sense we can cite many provinces and cities and the national government ruled by political dynasties. “An anarchy of families” says American historian, Alfred McCoy. 

Political dynasty members are seen to use their superior wealth, following and access to public resources to favor themselves and undermine the State. They attract their followers and keep them loyal with government patronage and personal protection. Some of them even resort to unfair if not illegal means to keep their political rivals out of office: corruption, fraud, violence, vote-buying and intimidation. But other political dynasties do not. We have mostly “bad political dynasties” and some exceptional “benevolent political dynasties.”

In general, however, political dynasties rise and fall. A political dynasty can be challenged and defeated, then rise again; or fade away when the people are dissatisfied and turn to other leaders. New dynasties capture government power and resources.

Dynasties in Senate and the 2013 senatorial election. The issue of political dynasties has heated up in relation to the 2013 candidates for the Senate who come from a few political families and thus bear the same surname as another senator, or of President Aquino himself.

The Constitution in Article II. Section 26 provides: “The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law.” Unfortunately, the framers left it entirely to Congress, many of whose members belong to political dynasties, to define political dynasties. The framers should have prohibited political dynasties effectively by a forthright constitutional prohibition such as this: “No outgoing elected official shall be succeeded to the same office by his or her spouse, brother or sister, son or daughter, or in laws. Such specific prohibition would be enforceable without implementing legislation.   

Consequences of political dynasties. The rapid expansion of our electorate, consisting of more and more poor people, insecure and dependent voters, and increasing political competition have increased the cost of campaigning and incumbency for the political leaders acting as patrons of their constituents. Our continuing semi-feudal society, pre-modern political culture, weak State, and self-serving leaders shape and perpetuate our dysfunctional elections, political parties, presidential form of government, and unitary system of national-local government relations.

The cost of elections is rising in all democracies, except that in the industrialized democracies where many middle class citizens contribute to the campaign of their party candidates. Moreover, their State supports the political parties through subsidies. In contrast, our middle class is not as broad and deep and effective as a countervailing force to the political establishment, although middle class members are becoming more assertive and our media are vigilant. Again, many of our voters are poor dependents of their political patrons. These conditions put great pressure on our politicians to use their power and influence to raise funds for their political survival, often through rent-seeking or private use of power, wasteful pork barrel politics, and influence peddling.

Unaccountable politics. Exploitative political dynasties are thus the cause and consequence of our ineffective and unaccountable patron-client democracy, and personalized parties plagued by misuse of power, corruption and wastage of state resources, and of our rapid population growth and continuing underdevelopment. We cannot begin to change our political system that breeds these ills without basic structural and institutional reforms, as we critics and Charter change advocates keep saying and writing about.

A weak, captive Philippine State. According to Richard Javid Heydarian in his revealing article, “Why the Philippines failed,”: one discovers that the Philippines’ developmental troubles have a lot to do with ‘state-formation’ — or lack of a strong, independent state—in the country. This is precisely what differentiates the Philippines from many of its successful neighbors, which have had strong and enlightened executives, autonomously undertaking crucial (and correct) economic decision without pandering to specific interest groups. As scholar Joel Migdal has correctly analyzed, the main problem with the Philippines is that it never had a ‘strong’ state, which normally has at its disposal an enabling combination of sufficient ‘policy autonomy’ and ‘functional capacity’ to craft and implement right decision in the interest of the country. Instead, the Philippine state is basically an instrument of extra-state, parochial interests, which hardly coincide with the broader national interest.” The Hufffington Post, April 25, 2013.

Moreover, Heydarian adds: “The modern Filipino state, largely built and upgraded during the American period, had a simplistic democratic accent: elected legislature. xxx The problem was that the ‘representative’ legislature was dominated by the landed elite, who, in turn, did their best to block any effort at developing an independent and powerful state, executive leadership, and bureaucracy, which could push for egalitarian policies such as land reform. There was no corresponding effort by the [American] colonial masters to truly establish a powerful executive and bureaucracy, capable of prospering on its own.

“In this sense, one could say that — following Isaac Berlin’s concepts of freedom — the Philippines (under its colonizers) only developed an adulterated understanding of democracy, along libertarian lines, which emphasized ‘negative freedom’ (non-interference/intrusion of the state in individual’s lives and property) at the expense of ‘positive freedom’ (basic social and economic rights for all citizens). As a result, the Philippines has had not only a defective democracy — whereby citizens are formally equal, but in reality an oligarchy is in charge — but also a weak State struggling to craft an optimal economic calculus [Emphasis added].

“In Why Nations Fail, economists Acemoglu and Robinson provide a brilliant explanation on how progress and development is largely a function of ‘inclusive’ — as opposed to extractive—governance. Using their dichotomy, the Philippines clearly falls within the extractive category, whereby the core-elite have blocked appropriate policies, which would have made the country a true democracy, anchored by a large middle class, an entrepreneurial sector, and strong institutions spurring growth and innovation. Therefore, in many ways, the developmental failure

of the Philippines has something to do with its weak and divided State, which seldom had the right ‘policy space’ to make optimal economic decisions.

“Throughout the post-War period, the Philippine State has either been at the mercy of entrenched elites, pushing for particularistic interests and blocking policies/legislations aimed at national development, or international financial institutions (World Bank and IMF), which have prescribed counterproductive policies, notably ‘Structural Adjustment Programs’ (SAPs), causing tremendous poverty, social dislocation, agricultural decline and ‘de-industrialization’ across the developing world. Sometimes, the Philippines was at the mercy of both.”

In sharp contrast to the Philippines, Heydarian states that —Japan and then the Newly Industrializing Countries (NICs) of South Korea and Taiwan, of course China dramatically, and  the ASEAN countries of Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand “were able  to transform from feudal, agricultural societies into hubs of innovation and production xxx to climb up in the global chains of production, and lift millions of people out of poverty.”  

Heydarian concludes: “In most cases, we see how a strong, autonomous state changed the national culture, created its own ‘comparative advantage’ within the global economic structures, and sidelined predatory elites for the preservation of national interest. This is where the Philippines should begin.” The Hufffington Post, April 25, 2013.

What is to be done? Although we have not reached the tipping point, for lack of top leaders who are willing to initiate the basic structural and institutional reforms needed, we are gradually waking up to our real problems in political modernization and development. As Randy David observed recently: “I am convinced that we have entered such a period of change. We are becoming less tolerant of feudal privilege, of patronage politics, and of unaccountable public officials. We sneer at the rich who avoid paying their full tax obligations. We are contemptuous of those who trade their votes for cash. And, as important, we are more inclined than ever to criticize each other, and to express our disaffection with the way we run our society. Philippine Inquirer, April 17, 2013.

In my columns and articles I have advocated specific structural and institutional reforms requiring amendments to our 1987 Constitution. I have supported reforms in the ARRM along the lines of the Framework Agreement Bangsamoro that President P-Noy and the MILF agreed to in October 2012. Our newly formed Centrist Democracy Party—Partido ng Tunay na Demokrasya sees this as the first step towards the devolution of our highly centralized and dysfunctional unitary system. Our CDP-PTD is also vigorously pushing for a parliamentary government to replace our obsolete presidential government that discourages the formation of really democratic and program-oriented political parties and a strong State.

Moreover, we are asking President P-Noy to spearhead the needed strengthening of the Philippine State through Charter change and reform legislation. We believe this is his best chance to become a transforming leader and leave a memorable and beneficial legacy. His continuing high approval and trust ratings make it possible to make the fundamental reforms we need to build a strong State that will spearhead Philippine modernization and development. He must make the potential a reality. 


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